Universalist Church of West Hartford
December 1, 2013
Last September, there was a tempest in a teapot. A tiny corner of the blogosphere, one saturated by Unitarian Universalists, lit up for a few spare seconds. How many here are aware of this minor controversy? How many here are aware that there is a corner of the universal blogosphere where UUs use their ways with electronic words and occasionally scintillating visual elements to spread the good word and often to parse it among ourselves?
Full disclosure here: I inhabit part of said corner of the internet universe and I was a humble contributor to the tempest.
The president of the UUA, the Reverend Peter Morales, published online an article that had been published a month earlier in the hard copy of the UUWorld. In this article, he said the following:
I am now convinced that “belief,” in the way we usually use the word, is actually the enemy of faith, religion, and spirituality. Let me say that again: belief is the enemy of faith. When we dwell on beliefs we ask all the wrong questions. My faith is much more about what I love than about what I think.
He concluded with those words from our earlier reading:
Faith becomes a relationship. Faith is about being faithful to what we hold sacred. A new interfaith, multifaith spirituality is struggling to be born. Ours has always been a faith beyond belief.
The short version of the tempest in the teapot is that many people, both clergy and lay, responded to this bold statement. One person defended belief, telling us that instead of banning beliefs, we should broaden them. One encouraged us to stop being AGAINST and instead be FOR. One person suggested that belief and faith are not mutually exclusive. For better or worse, I chimed in.
I continue to chime in, sometimes only in my head, sometimes in other ways, like this morning, because theologically, this is some of the juiciest stuff that we UUs and we human beings can encounter, engage, and embody. This is beyond thinking big thoughts or writing cogent critique. This is us, sitting here today, co-creating this worship space together. This is us, lighting both the menorah, all eight candles ablaze, and lighting the first candle of Advent and in so doing, not feeling contradiction, disjointedness, or even paradox, but deep spiritual coherence.
It in the Letter of Paul to the Ephesians, which really wasn’t written by the historical Paul, but by one of his followers, we see the revolutionary – the professor of my quantum spirituality call would say, “evolutionary” — impulse to bring together what appears as opposites or as anti-thetical to one another. For those of you with that condition known as allergius scripturous and the more specific ailment of allergius crucifixicious, I ask you to listen past the Christ talk for the counter-cultural message here:
13 But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ. 14 For he is our peace; in his flesh he has made both groups into one and has broken down the dividing wall, that is, the hostility between us. 15 He has abolished the law with its commandments and ordinances, that he might create in himself one new humanity in place of the two, thus making peace, 16 and might reconcile both groups to God in one body[a] …
In that second chapter of Ephesians, the author addresses the community of Hebrews and Gentiles together, two groups once separated, now called to sit side by side in worship together, called to a deeper Unity than their cultural or religious beliefs had been able to previously articulate or honor. No contradiction or paradox: just eventual spiritual coherence.
Hmmmm. Reminds me of a certain modern faith community I know and love, one with which I tend to associate and with whom have cast my lot, being called to serve them and our greater vision.
For we Unitarian Universalists have consciously and explicitly – not secondarily, but outloudly — gathered together people of disparate belief, particularly in the past half century and even further back. As I have practiced my so-called “elevator speech” about what Unitarian Universalism is, I find myself saying, “One can likely sit in a pew with an atheist on one side and on the other, someone who finds comfort and salvation in the life of Jesus.” We have gathered thusly, sensing that there is greater commonality than not; aspiring to a greater unity not just in heaven or beyond this earthly plane, but right here, right now.
We find ourselves in the pews not only with our fellow travelers, but with our preconceived notions and our inevitable clumsinesses. So this can be awkward in the pew and no less so up here, making for interesting challenges for those leading worship, lay and clergy alike! Though it is a place of coming together, in some places and at some times, it has felt more like a divide. We see this when we hear report that some Christians feel like they can’t disclose this part of themselves in our congregations. We see this when we hear of humanists who feel no room for them at our “inn.” Sounds like the false art of compromise: if no one is happy, then you must be doing something right. Well, that might work in non-profit or corporate management, but in this house of worship and within our denomination, we strive for something better.
It is something we are still very much learning, sometimes careening this way or that, sometimes over the course of years or decades, and sometimes just in a single sermon. I consider this the process of beyonding belief. Not the static “beyond belief” from the earlier reading, but a dynamic one, the verb rather than the preposition, the journey rather than the destination.
It can result in “hazy” language, as the UU minister James Ford describes our current dynamic:
We stand at an interesting moment in the history of our liberal faith. We took a vacation from using that word god. We appear to be relentlessly going forward to reclaiming the word. But, are we going to simply return to that god which makes one person happy and curses the other? Or, are we going to allow the language of the sacred, the language of heart to point us in new directions?
Like James Ford, I consider myself a Buddhist, though I am nowhere near as accomplished as he and I practice in a different stream of Buddhism. Yet, despite my non-theism, I often find myself drawn to the word god (usually lower case “g”) and the power of it in spiritual conversations.
When I say 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 (except for today), 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” does enter into my sermon or prayer, it is, more often than not, 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 I want to acknowledge, for I have historically been counted among this group, that for many the invocation of “god” is also the quickest way not to build a bridge, but to burn it down; to not only close a door, but to slam it.
It is a tender and powerful word.
I can point to one moment where I was able to embrace this incomplete, inadequate, limited word with all its harsh and pained history – the word, not the concept. It came from reading the words of the Unitarian-not-Unitarian-then-back-again minister, John Haynes Holmes, who died in 1964 and at some point wrote
(W)hen I say “God”, it is poetry, not theology. Nothing that any theologian ever wrote about God has helped me much, but everything that poets have written about flowers, and birds, and skies, and seas, and the saviors of the race, and God — whoever that may be — has at one time or another reached my soul. The theologians gather dust upon the shelves of my library, but the poets are stained with my fingers and blotted with my tears.
God not as person. God not even as deity. God not as a description, but as a pointer. A flawed, limited, insufficient pointing toward Mystery. Or as the Quaker Rex Amble proposes, god as an invitation “to look and see for ourselves.” God as poetry.
When I think of all this – all this god talk; this talk of theism and non-theism, belief and faith; all this talk of apparent opposites which might be paradox but also contain coherence and smack of revolution and evolution – I cannot help but think of that wise, enigmatic sage, Walt Whitman, and Part 51 of Song of Myself:
The past and present wilt—I have fill'd them, emptied them. And proceed to fill my next fold of the future.… Do I contradict myself? Very well then I contradict myself, (I am large, I contain multitudes.)
It is the heart of quantum spirituality which understands two things traditionally perceived as at odds with each other – spirituality and science – and beholds the deeper, shared truths of both. At its heart is a sacred glue that is all-encompassing, within and without, interpenetrating and animating. Some call it divinity. Some just might call it that holy grail of science, the not-yet fully articulated unified field theory that explains without contradiction how the universe operates.
It is the deep and essential life pulse that is beyond or even beyonding. Beyond what? Gender? Yes. 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 – you can see this if you bisect one and expose the elegance of its structure — 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. It is how, at the tiniest measurements of existence yet known to humanity, subatomic and smaller, it has been found to be true that instead of something being either wave or particle, it can be both…at the very same time.
This blows my meager mind, which is as it should be. And my heart leaps forward to embrace it.
One important note of caution. While I have mistakenly thought about UUs as making this unique contribution to the beyonding belief project, it turns out we are not alone when it comes to joining theist and non-theist. Just this week, the British Quaker (and blogger), Craig Barnet, posted this question to the larger Friends community:
Nontheist Friends have difficulties talking about discernment as “finding the will of God”. Can we phrase it in a way which is acceptable to Christians, Nontheists, and all the other theological positions to be found within our Yearly Meeting?
It sounds like we are keeping good company with the Quakers.
In seminary, which I attend just a few miles down Fern Street from here, I have been learning about a whole host of largely heterodox believers and theologians from a wide spectrum of faith communities. While we want to acknowledge our UU contributions to living into the multitude of reality and into peace, to beyonding beliefs, let us be sure to also understand ourselves in a wider context that includes all the myriad voices embodying hopeful, powerful engagement with Ultimacy, with that Great Mystery, with Primal Source, with God, with whatever name you give that which is greater than ourselves.
Wherever you find yourself on the continuum of theism and non-theism, whether it is the same place you have always been or is new to you or is in more than one place at any one time which quantum physics and quantum spirituality allows, may you never forget that whatever your beliefs, whatever your gods, over and over again our attention must turn to compassion, justice, and interdependence in this world, in this now.
May you feel the blessing that you are.
May you sense the blessing that you can be.
May you share all that and more.
Go in peace. Go seek justice. Go contain multitudes!
Ambler, Rex. The Quaker Way: a rediscovery, Christian Alternative, 2012.
Barnet, Craig. “The Name of God,” November 23, 2013
The Bible, New Revised Standard Version. Letter of Paul to the Ephesians.
Ford, James. “God as Prose, God as Poetry: Unitarian Universalism Faces a New Age,” the blog, “Monkey Mind,” June 23, 2013.Morales, Peter. “Belief is the enemy of faith: A new interfaith, multifaith spirituality is struggling to be born,” UUWorld, Fall, 2013.