“God of My Dreams” by Mark W. Harris
(Third in a Series on the Unitarian Principles of James Freeman Clarke)
March 18, 2012 – First Parish of Watertown
Call to Worship – from Teaching a Stone to Talk by Annie Dillard
Does any one have the foggiest ides what sort of power we so blithely invoke? Or, as I suspect, does no one believe a word of it? The churches are children playing on the floor with their chemistry sets, mixing up a batch of TNT to kill a Sunday morning. It is madness to wear ladies’ straw hats and velvet hats to church; we should all be wearing crash helmets. Ushers should issue life preservers and signal flares; they should lash us to our pews. For the sleeping god may wake some day and take offense, or the waking god may draw us out to where we can never return.
Readings – from “Likeness to God” by William Ellery Channing (1828)
. . . true religion consists in proposing, as our great end, a growing likeness to the Supreme Being. Its noblest influence consists in making us more and more partakers of the Divinity. . .
It is only in proportion to this likeness, that we can enjoy either God or the universe. That God can be known and enjoyed only through sympathy or kindred attributes, is a doctrine which even Gentile philosophy discerned. That the pure in heart can alone see and commune with the pure Divinity, was the sublime instruction of ancient sages as well as of inspired prophets. It is indeed the lesson of daily experience. To understand a great and good being, we must have the seeds of the same excellence. How quickly, by what an instinct, do accordant minds recognise one another!. No attraction is so powerful as that which subsists between the truly wise and good; whilst the brightest excellence is lost on those who have nothing congenial in their own breasts. God becomes a real being to us, in proportion as his own nature is unfolded within us. To a man who is growing in the likeness of God, faith begins even here to change into vision. He carries within himself a proof of a Deity, which can only be understood by experience. He more than believes, he feels the Divine presence; and gradually rises to an intercourse with his Maker, to which it is not irreverent to apply the name of friendship and intimacy.
It is plain, too, that likeness to God is the true and only preparation for the enjoyment of the universe. In proportion as we approach and resemble the mind of God, we are brought into harmony with the creation; for, in that proportion, we possess the principles from which the universe sprung; we carry within ourselves the perfections, of which its beauty, magnificence, order, benevolent adaptations, and boundless purposes, are the results and manifestations. God unfolds himself in his works to a kindred mind . . . In proportion as we receive this spirit, we possess within ourselves the explanation of what we see. We discern more and more of God in every thing, from the frail flower to the everlasting stars. Even in evil, that dark cloud which hangs over the creation, we discern rays of light and hope, and gradually come to see, in suffering and temptation, proofs and instruments of the sublimest purposes of Wisdom and Love.
2nd Reading – from To the Lighthouse by Virginia Woolf
. . . what a power was in the human soul! she thought. That woman sitting there writing under the rock resolved everything into simplicity; made these angers, irritations fall off like old rags; she brought together this and that and then this, and so made out of that miserable silliness and spite (she and Charles squabbling, sparring, had been silly and spiteful) something — this scene on the beach for example, this moment of friendship and liking — which survived, after all these years complete, so that she dipped into it to re-fashion her memory of him, and there it stayed in the mind affecting one almost like a work of art.
“Like a work of art,” she repeated, looking from her canvas to the drawing-room steps and back again. She must rest for a moment. And, resting, looking from one to the other vaguely, the old question which traversed the sky of the soul perpetually, the vast, the general question which was apt to particularise itself at such moments as these, when she released faculties that had been on the strain, stood over her, paused over her, darkened over her. What is the meaning of life? That was all — a simple question; one that tended to close in on one with years. The great revelation had never come. The great revelation perhaps never did come. Instead there were little daily miracles, illuminations, matches struck unexpectedly in the dark; here was one. This, that, and the other; herself and Charles Tansley and the breaking wave; Mrs Ramsay bringing them together; Mrs Ramsay saying, “Life stand still here”; Mrs Ramsay making of the moment something permanent (as in another sphere Lily herself tried to make of the moment something permanent)— this was of the nature of a revelation. In the midst of chaos there was shape; this eternal passing and flowing (she looked at the clouds going and the leaves shaking) was struck into stability. Life stand still here, Mrs Ramsay said. “Mrs Ramsay! Mrs Ramsay!” she repeated. She owed it all to her.
Sermon – “God of My Dreams”
I am not someone who spends very much time on Facebook. Mostly I feel like I don’t know what I am doing or I will get sucked in to everybody’s comments, and find the day will suddenly be gone. Yet not long ago I noticed that a historian friend named Dean Grodzins, who I had not seen or talked to in a long time, had posted an update. As soon as I logged in, I found he had been a recent visitor to the Harvard Book Store, one of my favorite places. His posting was a picture of a new book he had seen there, one with the title “Memoir of God.” What prompted the posting though, was not the title, which seemingly would make it a very, very long book, but rather the fact that the book had one of those stickers that helps promote sales, that usually follow a public appearance by the author where they speak about his or her book. By now you may have guessed that the sticker read, “Signed by the author.” While amused by the idea of how or when God might have added an autograph to the tome, we might also wonder if he/she would personalize or even give us time to discuss the content. This was always the God of my dreams – one I could talk to, ask about the nature of existence, my future, the purveyor of all good luck and future happiness. The God I wished for in childhood, but who evaporated more and more as life unfolded.
This God of my childhood dreams was a father God as in Our Father who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name. I don’t think I have to reiterate all the symbolic meanings of a male God in the sky controlling all things, rewarding the good and punishing the bad. While the father in heaven seemed like an unrealistic fantasy to me, and I soon sought other ways to understand the divine, I don’t think I fully understood its impact on the female half of the human race until I attended seminary. In the late 1970’s the devastating effect of male dominated religious institutions and language were made apparent in the anger and frustration of many of my fellow seminarians. What’s still disappointing is how most writers still refer to the human race as mankind, and religious leaders continue to image God as Father. It also reminds us of the pervasive degradation of women in both religious and secular institutions despite the reality of women enjoying relative freedom and equality in the workplace. We see this when presidential candidates or right wing talk show hosts try to do the failed business of repressive religious institutions despite the fact that 99% of the women having sex in our culture use birth control. These birth control and abortion amendments are not about freedom of religion, it is an attempt to control, denigrate and dominate women. One candidate thinks birth control is counter to how things are supposed to be. Suppose to be? It reminds me of a famous Susan B. Anthony quote: “I distrust those people who know so well what God wants them to do, because I notice it always coincides with their own desires.”
After my own experience in seminary, I served two Unitarian Universalist churches that were Christian in their orientation, and recited the Lord’s Prayer every Sunday. Because of my feelings, I proceeded to adopt changes in both of those congregations – in the first we had the choir sing the prayer, and in the second, we began a rotation of prayers, including one that had female imagery for God. Of course what I was reacting to was my own experience that Father God implied repression, violence and control, and the subjugation of women. I did not take into account why Jesus had used that term in the first place. He used Abba, which was the term in Aramaic that a toddler would have used for father. God was Daddy or Papa. He also used some female imagery. What he was trying to do was establish a sense of intimacy with God that other words that were more formal and distant could not replicate. Rather than something like, “The Lord speaks the truth from on high, he wanted to know a God who would empower him to heal by touch, accept the rejected, and forgive those accused of wrong doing. God was not a harsh judge, but was compassionate and understanding.
So while I thought of Father as harsh, it was not what Jesus was trying to do at all. Now let me make a confession here. I organize monthly worship services at Brigham House, where I am part of a rotation of Protestant ministers. When I go, we sing a song, with me leading, if that is imaginable. We do such songs as This Little Light of Mine. Then we come to the prayer. Following the prayer, we always recite the Lord’s Prayer together. Now you might say, he is violating his own rules of rejecting this literal, male imagery for God. But here is why I do it. Most of my congregation is Catholic, and while we will sing together, and they will hear me tell a story/sermon, I want to discover a way for us to find a common connection. I want us to know a universal, at least for this group, feeling of connectedness because we all want to know in those moments together that we are loved and cared for. We want comfort, and we want to feel part of one big family with a parent who loves us. These are people whose lives are now limited physically, maybe mentally, and days are short. They want to know forgiveness and compassion – to feel my hand in greeting, and to know that we are connected, even for a few minutes with each other seems like a good thing.
This gives you some understanding of why James Freeman Clarke used the Fatherhood of God, as his first principle of Unitarianism. It may seem dated and sexist to Unitarian Universalists – patriarchal, literal, maybe even naïve or old fashioned. But if we go beyond all those rational stereotypes, we can see what both he and Jesus were trying to create spiritually. While Jesus had those rigid, legalistic Pharisees to contend with, Clarke and his Unitarian counterparts were responding to the all powerful Calvinist God who judged all humans as sinners, predetermined who would be saved, and gave no freedom or responsibility to act morally to anyone. Channing, the great leader of the Unitarians emphasized our human likeness to God, not because he wanted to fill us with pride with how great we are, but so that we could aspire to use our intellectual and moral affections to grow more and more like God. If we want God to be real, he says, then this only becomes so, as God’s nature unfolds in us. This is through sympathy, through recognizing kindred attributes in each other, through daily experiences, to which Channing applies the words friendship and intimacy. As people, we all have parents, and can imagine love for a parent who takes care of us, affirms us, and yet challenges us to emulate this moral perfection. The point of religion for us has always been to make yourself a better person, not affirm that something is true.
Clarke in his thoughts on God says that a father figure more readily offers forgiveness to us spiritually than the implacable law or the abstract king. The tenderness we find in another human being is not found, he says, in terms like infinite power or what we today might call ground of being or even spirit of life. He voices some of the same concerns as modern people who cannot find personal meaning in a God of stars and science because it feels cold and distant. This is why he uses the personal language of embracing a God of immanence, where we feel the star stuff or the life force in each other. What if we prayed for deeper compassion and understanding with our holy friend?
I am not trying to convince you to believe in God, or even if you do believe in some kind of divine essence, to use a term like father. Unitarian Universalists in the generations since Clarke are in a unique, but often difficult place when it comes to talking about or experiencing God. When we ask the question, what is the meaning of life? as we heard it in Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse, we may feel like the question is valid, but most of us, do not have a static or certain answer to the question, like God gives meaning through the Ten Commandments, the Sermon on the Mount or the Four Truths of Buddhism. Many of us who are atheists might say that the questions themselves do not have any metaphysical validity. Meaning is what we make it. Elsewhere in To The Lighthouse, Lily wants an explanation for life. Why is it short? Why is it unfair? Why do we suffer? Why can’t the dead Mrs. Ramsay come back? We may feel as though nothing should be hid from us, as Lily says, but explanations are not forthcoming. It is a mystery, perhaps providing ample evidence that there is no reason to believe in God, because the God we want, the God of our dreams does not answer and we have no evidence he/she exists.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the great German pastor during World War II, once said that we must live as though God does not exist. This was not an acknowledgement that there was no God, but that God as traditionally imaged was not real. We know that no words can describe God, even if there is such a reality, because we can only speak in human terms. Father or any term would always be inadequate, and each of us would have very different experiences of that unfolding truth, some calling it God, and some not.
All we can know is that life is a great mystery, and we can only feel reverence for its reality, and gratitude for its beauty, captured in the awe and wonder we see. This points to another part of sacredness in life that can support meaning for us. While the traditional Father God was distant and judging, Clarke suggested father be warm and forgiving. The other traditional part of God as father is that he was above and beyond the creation, acting upon it from outside. What women did for religious understanding was to return it to the natural world as a source of sacredness. The feminine principle is the principle of relationship, but it is also one that affirms the natural order of life and death, the seasons, the every day reality of revelation, the spirit of life
All of us are deeply disturbed that our culture of weaponry and violence is perpetrated upon the world. There is a spirit of death that is born of the human predilection to control and conquer from above and beyond. The sacred principle of life rejects this violence and values compassion and cooperation. We can see this cycle of poverty and drugs and violence and murder in this sad case from Mattapan that is now before the jury. Can we begin marching for peace? Can we work to make the earth sacred again? Can we value children again? Can we see wholeness in life, and how everything is interconnected? We begin here in the respectful and understanding relationships we make with one another, in our care for our homes and the earth under our feet, and in our willingness to give time to our children.
I suspect you see those as moral imperatives – peace among neighbors – care for the earth – the future in our children – but they are imperatives born not from God’s directives, but from the realities of our lives. In To the Lighthouse, Lily says the great revelation never comes. There is no, This is it, from on high. Rather the revelation must come in daily miracles in little unexpected moments. And there is nothing permanent. Life just keeps passing, and we must in those chances we have, find those little revelations of love that we have an opportunity to grasp – quiet conversation and discovery of one another’s passions, tears falling down a cheek as a child rides a bicycle for the first time, an embrace that helps us get through the fear of an upcoming surgery, standing next to a baby’s crib and hearing the sweet sounds of breath, moon’s glow over a shimmering ocean. What would you add of momentary revelations of daily truths? This is why Clarke said father. There is no Mighty Father out there, but only this father and son and mother and daughter in here, and right now. And the God we find is what happens between us in everything that is going on, and will go on.
Traditionalists would tell us that morality couldn’t exist without God. That is why they sometimes say hang those Ten Commandments in court rooms, or let the school in Rhode Island keep its prayer to God for student achievement, even as it violates the religious liberty of atheists, or anyone who does not ascribe to its theology. Darwin struggled with this very question, and initially believed that God ordained the laws governing the universe, but then he eventually saw that the goal of the evolutionary process was the creation of human beings as moral creatures. Channing believed in something he called disinterested benevolence. This means that despite our human selfishness, we do love and see and act on what is more morally beneficial to the larger human family. What we might think of as purely personal and secular desires is the human need to create loving, cooperative communities where we take care of one another. It may not be religion with all its dogma, but it is what humans long to build with one another. It may not be God with a defined word or liturgy, but it is finding something profoundly loving in our relationships and something beautiful in the world, and wanting more of it. The painter van Gogh once said, “The best way to know God is to love many things.”
Channing said that our preparation for likeness to God is the enjoyment of the universe. I am reminded of that famous reading from the novel The Color Purple, where Celie says God wants us to merely enjoy that beautiful purple field of flowers. She says be entranced with this display of color and smell, the blanket of majesty and wonder. Let this be a momentary revelation that will pass with the season, and we must watch for it to come again. Margaret’s wife Susan has recently been in Alaska, and twice this week I heard Margaret tell how Susan arose early and ran to the window to try to see the Northern Lights. She didn’t see them, but it was such an image of desire to see the beautiful and be captured by it in a momentary revelation. But then later when she was driving, and not looking for the lights, they suddenly appeared in all their glory in the sky.
Perhaps that has happened to you somewhere on this amazing planet. And you shared it with someone you loved. That was Clarke’s God, aching to expose in little intimate moments of passing revelation where we see and experience something holy with one another. Some will call it God, and some will not. But it surely is wonderful, and that kind of feeling of togetherness or passion or warmth may never come again. And it almost feels like it comes from the great beyond. But it really emanates from within and around us, from me and you, and what we create and see together. We might not use Clarke’s word Father, or even God anymore. Maybe there is too much baggage. Yet we still madly desire that enjoyment, that creative moment in our daily lives when the bread is baking, and the lover is smiling, or we truly look and listen to one another, or maybe it is even in larger settings like feeling a human unity while being among the sea of people at Woodstock, or marching together against war. But we are together, and we are strong, and we know if we open our hearts to each other, love will continue to emerge, and feel holy.
Closing Words – from Hildegard of Bingen
I am the one whose praise
echoes on high.
I adorn all earth.
I am the breeze
that nurtures all things
I encourage blossoms to flourish with ripening fruits.
I am led by the spirit to feed
the purest streams.
I am the rain
coming from the dew.
that causes the grasses to laugh
with the joy of life.
I call forth tears,
the aroma of holy work.
I am the yearning for good.