“A Godless Mystery?” by Mark W. Harris – November 15, 2009

“A Godless Mystery?” – Mark W. Harris

November 15, 2009 – First Parish of Watertown

Call to Worship – adapted from Perry Como

I have seen a mother at a crib,
So I know what love is.

I have looked into the eyes of a child,
So I know what faith is

I have heard the wild bird’s sing,
So I know what freedom is.

I have seen a rainbow,
So I know what beauty is.

I have planted a tree
So I know what hope is

I have touched a helping hand,
So I know what kindness is.

I have seen a flower burst into bloom,
So I know what a mystery is.

I have lost a friend,
So I know what sorrow is.

I have felt the pounding of the sea,
So I know what power is.

I have seen a star decked sky,
So I know what the infinite is.

I have seen and felt all these things,
So I know what God is!

Reading by Edward Frost

We have heard that God
Is all the goodness
All the sweetness and light
And joy in the morning.

But God is the cries we do not hear,
The depth of hell the other suffers,
The darkness and the confusion.
Of the permanent night.

God may be the chaos –
Missed in our neatness and order
Who shuns the glistening temple
To walk in the gray repositories
Of twisted and divided souls.

To see such a God
Is to seek discomfort,
To walk in another’s broken shoes
Through the eye of an inner storm,
And be bent and twisted with him.

We have heard that God is love.
But God is the demand to love,
A demand unheeded,
Thus a God undiscovered.

Press through the grown over path
To another’s aloneness,
And there, with her,
The pain and the bearer of pain,
Is God.


Last week we heard two of our members address the theme of how their faith sustains them in difficult times. All of us have endured times when it seems like our lives are falling apart – our relationships, jobs, health all suffer. A traditional faith might inform you that God will sustain you at such times. Yet I think some people come to Unitarian Universalist churches because the God they learned about as children was suppose to prevent these bad things from happening, but then the inevitable vale of tears descended upon each of us, and God was absent. Yet it was not so much God’s absence that hurt us, but rather the interpretation of God that our childhood faith gave us. We end up with the impression that we are being punished by a guilt inducing, vengeful God. It is our fault we became sick or lost our job, and that we have committed some iniquity or are defective in God’s eyes. Christian Scientists for instance seem to teach that you become sick because you are not praying or living right, and then once you get right with God you will return to health. I had the experience many years ago when I was a student chaplain of sitting with a young mother whose baby had just died. Her own pastor, a conservative Baptist, came into the hospital room, raised his hand, and said, “It’s God will.” What person is going to go on believing in a God who kills off babies for his own pleasure as part of an inscrutable plan?. In an imperfect world, with imperfect people, mistakes are made, tragedies happen, and sometimes we long for answers to what it all means.

We not only have the issues we struggle with in our daily lives, but there is also a world beyond these walls that has been filled in recent years with economic chaos, unending wars, global warming, and the ever present threat of terrorists. I don’t need to tell you that we are living in tumultuous times. Just this week, a military doctor gunned down twelve people and wounded more than two dozen more on a military base in Texas, shouting the name of God as he did so. His Muslim faith fueled the already present fears that an entire religion is to blame for inducing terrorist activities. We see polarization between Jews and Palestinians, the Western world and the Muslim world, and between Republicans and Democrats at home. It seems like a world of extremists. Not too many years ago each of these larger political conflicts found representation in a rise of radical fundamentalism within its ranks. The scholar Karen Armstrong told us about a Battle for God, with each side claiming that its dogma was the true one with little room left for understanding the other side. Right wing Jews, Muslim terrorists, and evangelical Christians left us believing that the world would never know peace and justice.

The rise of worldwide fundamentalism has made more than one liberal a little nervous about the direction religion is going. In recent decades evangelical faiths have grown, while more moderate approaches have stagnated. One development in these times of political polarization is that fundamentalism has been countered by a resurgence of atheism. This atheist coming out brought us authors Sam Harris, Christopher Hitchens and especially Richard Dawkins, who wrote The God Delusion. I even found the Quotable Atheist stuffed in my stocking last Christmas. Jolly old Santa was pushing atheism, too. The other day I was riding the Red Line going to a meeting in Boston, and I noticed a placard inside the train with the words: “Good without God? Millions of Americans are.” An article in the Boston Globe said that these ads were sponsored by the Boston Area Coalition of Reason, who were trying to raise awareness that God is a myth. Last Sunday, Martha Scott read one of the letters that was written in response to the article, which stated that our UU churches welcome people of all theological stripes, including atheists. It is true that atheists, agnostics, theists, Christians and Buddhists can all find community in UU congregations that number among our principles the free search for truth.

Yet I have found many of these newly popular atheists to be fundamentalists in their own right. They are reacting against an image of God, that many of us rejected as children, that of an all powerful, supernatural monarch who approves of us when we are good, and punishes us when we are bad, and will broker deals with us in exchange for unending homage and allegiance. Since that kind of God does not exist, they say, there is no God. Yet many people who still believe in God, don’t believe in that kind of God either. Dawkins says that he is “against religion because it teaches us to be satisfied with not understanding the world.” Another atheist group that sponsored some ads in the midwest said that religion “hardens hearts and enslaves the mind.” This point of view foolishly reasserts an intransigent science vs. religion argument where only one can be a winner. Understanding the world and trying to make it better have always been at the forefront of our Unitarian Universalists faith, but Dawkins seems to want to summarily dismiss all religions as stupid, anti-intellectual mythic structures that teach people things that just ain’t so. It replicates the polarization we see in politics into the religious world.

Into this mix of fundamentalists vs. atheists comes two new books. One of these, The Case for God by Karen Armstrong, was recently on the best seller list. One reviewer states that Armstrong says religion is properly a matter of practice, that is the prayers and rituals, or the experience of the faith, and the worst thing imaginable is the folly of intellectualizing the practice. This makes it into a matter of belief, argument, and ultimately dogma. The problem with liberal religion is that we have frequently intellectualized the rejection of belief. We also have a hard time formulating exactly what our practices are because we don’t sprinkle holy water or eat wafers. What might be most helpful is if we remembered that the experience of Unitarian Universalism is the embodiment of it in our lives. Our whole faith is practice. When it comes to God, Armstrong says that nothing about God can be put into words. She recommends silence, and says words such as “God” have to be seen as symbols, not names, but any word will always be inadequate, or metaphorical. The mystery at the heart of religious practice is ineffable, unapproachable by reason and by language. Silence is its truest expression.

We can certainly appreciate this, when for many of us, the most reverent times in our lives are when we sit in silence. When that Baptist minister interrupted me as a young student minister, I was sitting holding the hand of the mother who had just suffered an unbearable loss. There are no words to comfort or to provide assurance at that time. It is merely time for a silent witness that the event has occurred, and that the other person is not alone. So, too when a parent stands by the side of a crib and watches their sleeping infant, or when we look out at a majestic mountain scene or feel the surf crashing against the rocks, there may be an ineffable feeling of oneness with another person or with the creation in that silent moment. To be reverent like this is to be more fully human.

Many years ago a family called me up and asked me to come to their house when their father died. I went upstairs and found myself alone with the deceased. Perhaps the family was acting out a ritual where they expected the clergyperson to perform some kind of last rites, but my training had certainly not prepared me for that. Instead all I could do was sit with the body, touch his leg, and try in my awkward way to send him him off to the great silent unknown. So in a sense I had prayed for him, giving him my own version of last rites by being present, not with prepared words, but with the witness of my life. That is really all that we can do. God is like the pain described in the reading by Edward Frost. It is the cry or the confusion in suffering, or the demand to respond to another in love, and say, yes I will be present with you even as you bear this pain. Former UUA president Paul Carnes once wrote, “we may not know what God is, but we can know what it means to be human. This we can each do. For as Carnes said, we are the earth speaking, . . . the Universe grown conscious of itself. . . We are the force that creates and destroys even the gods we worship.”

Is it us who has created God? The biologist Robert Wright writes in his book, The Evolution of God, that he is not sure there is a God, but he is sure that our idea of God has progressed in a humane fashion so that the increasing goodness of God reflects the increasing goodness of our species. In the midst of all this polarization I have talked about, he gives us some degree of hope that the world and us can be saved. Echoing the words of that great Unitarian preacher Theodore Parker, Wright believes that while the moral arc of the universe is long, it does bend toward justice. Wright would be the first to admit that lots of violence has been done in God’s name, but the evidence is also clear that we have moved as a species in a positive moral direction over time. How people interpret the texts of their faiths, and the moral choices they make help determine the shape of the God they worship. Over time technological growth and the reality of greater global interconnections have moved us toward more mutually beneficial relationships. Simply speaking, the God we are envisioning now has evolved from one who people pray to to bring in a good catch by our fishermen, or who protects our little tribe from annihilation by the tribe over the hill. Larger and larger expanses of people have been protected, or at least tolerated by one God. Our new world has a God that embraces many faiths, and represents greater justice for all. Even as there are set backs, such as when a state like Maine votes down equal marriage, we also know that the world is marching toward a vision of oneness not so different from that first envisioned by our Universalist forebears.

Evidence of human progress can be found in familiar Biblical passages. Take the story of Jonah from the Hebrew scriptures. Jonah as most of you recall was the fellow who was swallowed by the whale. In the story God sends Jonah to reprove the people of Nineveh for their wicked ways. Jonah does not want to do this, and the big fish enters the story. After this dark night in the belly, Jonah decides he better obey, and he goes to warn the Ninevites. And what do they do? Surprisingly, they repent. What’s interesting here is that traditionally they had been an enemy of Israel. Remember in the old days God leads people around and massacres their enemies. Now people are discovering that there is a lot of waste and inefficiency in fighting all the time. So instead of killing everybody, we tax them instead and allow them to live peacefully within our nation. God becomes nicer, too. And we see that with Jonah’s story. As you heard in the reading, Jonah is revolted by the idea of forgiving them. But the book ends with God explaining that he should be concerned about them, because they don’t know right from wrong, and we must teach them to be better. Now God doesn’t just get rid of enemies, or condemn them for sinfulness, but instead God can be understanding and show compassion towards others, even the enemy.

Even if we agree that the moral circle of humanity has been enlarged, is that evidence that God exists? While Wright believes that this growth of moral imagination reflects that there is a higher purpose to life or a transcendent moral order, it is not the creation of a divinely perfect being. We have moved in fits and starts, imperfectly and painfully just as human progress always is, but nevertheless, on a sure and steady pace of moral growth. Are we growing toward becoming a more morally sensitive species? Do the Gods we create grow with us? What Wright would say is that it does not matter whether God implants something in us that makes our tolerance and understanding and compassion increase over time, or if we develop it ourselves. It is a universal principle that we are meant to embrace with our lives and our cultures. It is not the all powerful God who makes one nation better than another, nor is it the personal God who will answer individual prayers for healing, but it is a God in us that is moving us toward creating a better society, one that makes us be more just and equitable in our dealings with our neighbors.

In her work about God, Karen Armstrong finds meaning in the philosophy of Ludwig Wittgenstein. He said religion was an expression of the forms of life, not the expression of certain propositions. So religious expression is found in enacting certain practices such as gathering food for the hungry, or singing in the choir. We help others. We find friendship with others. He says what matters is what satisfies us. So perhaps lighting a candle may not have any actual affect on the person we are lighting a candle for, but it does make us feel better to remember them, and think about them, and it also alerts others to our concern. They then can care for us or affirm us. This is why the practice of some of our childhood faith might still bring meaning. We may not actual believe it, but it feels good to do it. Saying the word God may still hold meaning for some of us, but not for others. We cannot say for sure if God exists, but we can know an immense feeling of oneness in the silence. It may connect us to what we feel is a moral dimension to life that is growing in us and in the world. It may help us be more loving people. It may satisfy us.

An atheist group in England also ran a series of ads to celebrate the newly found resurgence of atheism. The British ad said: “There’s probably no God. Now stop worrying and enjoy your life.” This reminds me of the series of attacks that were leveled upon Universalists more than 200 years ago when it was struggling to survive. Universalists were reacting against Calvinism which declared that God saved some to eternal bliss, but condemned most to hell. In their reading of the Bible, Universalists discovered a loving god who found all people deserving of salvation. Yet the opponents of Universalism said it would lead to all manner of licentiousness, because if all were saved, then there was no incentive to be good. The threat of hell was what made people good. So murderers, adulterers and thieves were often identified in the press as likely to be Universalists. Universalists argued that the moral principle of life is not a condemning God who threatens us, but rather a loving God who wants us to be happy. The word salvation comes from a Latin word meaning to stay intact, to remain whole, to be in good health. Universalists taught how salvation was to be achieved; how we can remain whole. Personally, we must do what makes us happy. Hosea Ballou, the great preacher of Universalism said, “The main object in all that we do is happiness.” I will always remember the words of my father as he laid on his death bed. He simply stated, “I’ve really enjoyed my life.” How can we appreciate our blessings? I recall the line in the novel the Color Purple, where one of the characters says God becomes angry when we humans don’t notice the color purple in a blooming field of flowers. The God in us truly emerges when when we do notice the beauty, live our lives to the fullest, engage with others, and care deeply enough to build a better world

Ballou also said that our happiness is tied up with the happiness of others. Salvation is not based on individual merit, or how good you are. Instead, salvation is a social salvation, or as Ballou said, our happiness is connected with the happiness of our fellows. We are bound up together, and this is clearly what our members said sustained them last week. Some would suggest that the divine appears through our willingness to be more engaged with others. Universalism teaches that the one human family is drawn up into God’s love, in one moral community. We will all be the better for it, and will be happy, when we comprehend the necessity of cooperation and compassion in building the moral community. Wright, in his new book, says we are moving toward an understanding of this great moral truth. For some it may be a nameless mystery, and for others it may be the source of the moral truth for all life, and whether or not we use the word God, or even find it meaningful, may we together create a community where we act on our longings to be in deeper relationship with others, and ultimately bring salvation to all.

Closing Words – from Mary E. Hunt

In the beginning God enjoyed herself.
She laughed out loud and laughed some more because it was good.
She sat back and smiled.
She clapped her hands in glee and imagined her sisters dancing.
She did nothing but enjoy and it was everything.

God knew that there was work to be done —
a world to create, people to form and a whole creation to plan.
She even glimpsed the fact that creation would include meetings and that there would be injustices to right, and still she laughed, knowing that in the end it was all about pleasure.

She explained to no one in particular that enjoyment is what she intended life to be about: pleasure is the first principle.
She knew that other would be divinities stressed work and obligation.

She reasoned quite astutely that if joy for all were the goal, then everyone could rest and relax, at least some of the time. Just thinking about this made her grin.

Light years later, when creation came into being and people began to toil and sweat their way, she noticed that her first principle had been replaced by work and pain.
So, she se t a reminder of her legacy.
She gave it several names: relaxation, fun, recreation, leisure, play. some thought it was a vestige of days gone by.
But God knew that it was the real thing.
She called it salvation.