Opening Words: Abou Ben Adhem, Leigh Hunt
Abou Ben Adhem (may his tribe increase!)
Awoke one night from a deep dream of peace,
And saw, within the moonlight in his room,
Making it rich, and like a lily in bloom,
An angel writing in a book of gold: –
Exceeding peace had made Ben Adhem bold,
And to the presence in the room he said,
‘What writest though?’ The vision raised its head,
And with a look made of all sweet accord,
Answered, ‘The names of those who love the Lord.’
‘And is mine one?’ said Abou. ‘Nay, not so,’
Replied the angel. Abou spoke more low,
But cheerly still; and said, ‘I pray thee, then,
Write me as one that loves his fellow man.’
The angel wrote, and vanished. The next night,
It came again with a great wakening light,
And showed the names whom love of God has blest,
And lo! Ben Adhem’s name led all the rest.
First a story: Last Sunday at our Interfaith Concert, when Father Tom Thorne, pastor at Assumption Church, was master of ceremonies, he told us about an incident that had taken place that morning in a fourth-grade Sunday school class. He was telling the children about the Interfaith Concert to be held that afternoon. He explained that all of the religious communities in Westport-the Catholics, various Protestant groups, the Unitarian and Jewish congregations–were going to gather at Temple Israel to hear choirs and so forth, to raise money for the homeless.
“So, what do you think of that?” he asked.
One little girl said, “It’s going to confuse God.”
Do we confuse God, or are we simply confused about God?
This is another of the sermons I’ve prepared to respond to the questions people ask about what we Unitarians believe. What do we believe about God?
Henry Nelson Weiman is a well-known Unitarian theologican (yes, Virginia, there are Unitarian theologians, it’s not an oxymoron) who talks about God in rational terms–which may also sound like an oxymoron.
Weiman defined God as ‘creative interchange.’ For Weiman, son of a Presbyterian minister, God is better thought of as a verb rather than as a noun. I want to see if we can make sense of this idea.
Karen Armstrong, in her wonderful work, A History of God, says: “The statement ‘I believe in God’ has no objective meaning, as such, but like any other statement only means something in context, when proclaimed by a particular community.”
She says that the concept of God changes:
“When one conception of God has ceased to have meaning or relevance, it has been quietly discarded and replaced by a new theology…each generation has to create the image of God that works for it. The same is true of atheism. The statement ‘I do not believe in God’ has meant something slightly different at each period of history. The people who have been dubbed ‘atheists’ over the years have always denied a particular conception of the divine.”
What is true of the concept of God in the history of the religions of the world is, I think, true for each of us as individuals–our concept of God changes. Hopefully that change can be seen as growth, or maturation.
God’s existence does not depend on my belief; but my existence–the quality of my days and rest of nights–depends upon my belief system, my thinking.
Belief in a traditional God–as Creator, Father, Ruler of the Universe–has been a source of help, support and guidance to millions of Jews, Christians and Muslims. The traditional God-image with which I grew up–an anthropomorphic God personified in Jesus–became more problematic than help to me during my adolescence.
But I had an early encounter with something very real–a pre-sleep visit one night when I was about six years old. I can’t explain it, but it felt like a presence–substance without form. The memory of that visit has remained, even when all the old God-images were discarded.
I always considered myself religious, but not in the traditional sense. Indeed, as I grew up I felt more and more distant from those early religious teachings. I questioned and discarded most. When I felt very distant from my early religious roots I thought of myself as deeply spiritual, even while acknowledging the growing gap between me and those roots.
I was delighted, then, when I read Emerson: “There is a deep power in which we exist whose beatitude is accessible to us. Every moment the individual feels invaded by it is memorable. It comes to the simple and lowly, it comes in the form of serenity…when it breaks through the intellect it is genius; when it breathes through the will it is virtue, when it flows through the affections it is love.”
Yes, I thought, I have been invaded by the awareness of that deep power in which we exist. And I came to realize that it is not only in me, but I am in it. Emerson directed me to the Bhagavad-Gita: “I am the Self that dwells in the heart of every mortal creature: I am the beginning, the life span, and the end of all. I am death that snatches all; I am also the source of all that shall be born. I am time without end: I am the sustainer: my face is everywhere. I am the divine seed of all lives…there is no limit to my divine manifestations.”
So, when I hear the question: “Do you believe in God,” I am brought back to what I was taught about God as a child, which worked fine for me then, but which I grew away from early on. Since I stopped believing that God was a big, distant person, ‘out there,’ somewhere, I thought I could not answer the question in the affirmative.
I discovered, to my relief and delight, many theologians whose thoughts, ideas and beliefs were similar to my own.
The Jewish theologian, Moses ben Maimonides (1135-1204), one of the most influential scholars in the rabbinic tradition declared it to be inadmissible to use positive attributes to describe God’s essence. He developed what is referred to as a ‘negative theology.’ He said, as I understand it, ‘if you want to know what you truly believe about God, list all the things or attributes about God which you do not believe.’
My short list included: God is not a person; God does not live in space somewhere; God does not choose favorites; God does not intervene in history.
Maimonides’s system is referred to as ‘negative theology;’ by saying what you don’t believe you come closer to what you do believe and can affirm.
Another Jewish theologian, Martin Buber, suggests an idea that God is discovered in the interaction between me and others, when I see the sacred ingredient in both of us. He called it the I-Thou relationship, as contrasted to the I-It relationship in which I treat the other as an opportunity for my personal gain.
The Hindu greeting Namaste acknowledges that ‘the God in me greets the God in you.’ I and Thou.
The Christian theologian Paul Tillich said, “God does not exist, God IS existence; God is not a being, God is the Ground of all Being.”
The Unitarian theologian Henry Nelson Weiman posits an idea of God as ‘creative interchange.’ God, for Weiman, is more verb than noun.
Martin Luther King, Jr. wrote his doctoral thesis on the comparison of the theology of Paul Tillich and Henry Nelson Weiman. When I re-read a portion King’s dissertation recently I was reminded of his ‘I have a dream’ speech. One reason it reminded me of the ‘I have a dream’ speech is that the doctoral dissertation put me to sleep…as theologians so often do.
I was reminded why I had such a difficult time with theology classes in seminary–it seemed so boring, and it lacked what I thought of then as ‘relevance.’
So, as I read Dr. King’s dissertation again, I smiled to myself as I pictured him standing in front of a sea of faces at the Lincoln Memorial and reading from Tillich or Weiman. But I was reminded that King wrote that dissertation at Boston University School of Theology, where I also studied, and I realized, in a less amusing moment, that the work and thought that went into that dissertation resulted, in part, in that wonderful ‘creative interchange’ that took place in front of the Lincoln Memorial at the reflecting pool.
They say that King did not ‘plan’ to say ‘I have a dream,’ that day- it was inspired, but it had a long preparation. He was expressing that most essential ingredient we call hope.
As I thought of King’s dissertation, and Weiman’s ideas, I realized that he was doing what Weiman talked about: creative interchange! God! He was doing God.
He said, “I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: ‘We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.’ … I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.
I have a dream today…that the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave owners will sit down at the table together…”
He was inspired. The right words came, and they have been repeated again and again.
That’s creative interchange. That’s God, at work in the world, working through an individual, inspired by those who touched his life, as he inspired so many lives.
It couldn’t have worked without all those people who attended that famous March on Washington. It couldn’t have worked without those who nurtured him in his early life and helped him to build self-confidence.
Martin Buber called it the I-Thou relationship, as contrasted to the I-It relationship. The I-Thou relationship is that most special relationship, characterized by mutual respect, rather than the relationships in which we think about what’s in it for us. The I-It relationship treats others as objects without souls.
Martin Luther King, Jr. ‘did God,’ by Weiman’s definition: creative interchange.
On the one hand, many of us would just as soon avoid God talk altogether. Walter Kaufmann put it this way: “The only God worth talking about is a God that cannot be talked about.”
God, then, is a paradox: An assertion that is essentially self-contradictory. The Tao Te Ching opens: “The Tao that can be told is not the eternal Tao, the name that can be named is not the eternal name.”
Someone said that genius is the ability to hold opposing thoughts in the mind at the same time. Can you realize that God exists without believing in an anthropomorphic God?
The idea of God as ‘creative interchange’ speaks to me.
The other day I heard a story about a blind man–a friend of the person telling about an incident–when this blind friend was home alone with his two-year old son and suddenly he realized that the little boy wasn’t in the room…and he realized that the sliding door to the pool was open…and he heard a splash…and he knew.
He went to the pool and dove in and frantically searched, diving down, flailing around, going out of his mind.
Then he stopped, standing still, quiet, and he heard bubbles and felt his way to them and dove down and grabbed the boy and gave him CPR.
Where did he get the strength to stop, stand still and listen? The Sabbath can be defined as ‘a time to stop trying to alter the universe.’ The blind man in the pool stopped and he heard the bubbles and found his son.
Do you remember Robert Frost’s poem, REVELATION? Listen again:
We make ourselves a place apart
Behind light words that tease and flout,
But oh, the agitated hear
Till someone really find us out.
‘Tis pity if the case require
(Or so we say) that in the end
We speak the literal to inspire
The understanding of a friend.
But so with all, from babes that play
At hid-and-seek to God afar,
So all who hide too well away
Must speak and tell us where they are.
This process of being ‘found out,’ is, I think, creative interchange. Or, it’s a combination of creative interchange, being real–as in the Velveteen Rabbit–and entering into the I-Thou relationship.
This is an interesting line: “tis pity if the case require (or so we say) that in the end we speak the literal to inspire the understanding of a friend.”
We can only talk of God, or deep feelings for that matter, with metaphor. All theology is poetry. It can not be taken as literally true, only metaphorically true.
A theological discussion can quickly descend to dueling gods, using words as weapons.
That’s the ‘pity’ Frost referred to. That’s regrettable, because a sense of distance grows between us rather than the sense of connection, or the sense of understanding which we want.
We’re not looking for agreement–we’re looking for understanding.
As the poet says, ‘we make ourselves a place apart, behind light words that tease and flout…’
We’ve all done it…we make those little insults, kidding with one another…to tease and flout…the contemptuous remark…then, ‘just kidding.’
“But oh the agitated heart till someone really find us out.”
We don’t want to be dragged out, forced out, humiliated.
But we want and need to be found out, in the sense of being understood, because we long for authenticity…we long for what Buber called the I-Thou relationship…we long for what Weiman called Creative Interchange, and what Tillich called the God above the gods, the Ground of Being.
I asked my brother Bill how he would respond to the question, “Do you believe in God.” He gave a very thoughtful answer out of his own life experience. He reminded me of the time, 35 years ago, when he had a break down, which was, in some ways, a break through.
It was a frightening time. He said:
The biggest problem is the word “believe.” I have a lot of trouble with that one. I have no idea whatsoever what it means to me, let alone to others.
I did have a brief EXPERIENCE once. I lost my separate identity. My mind expanded somehow into the universal mind. I was not separate from God. WE WERE ONE AND THE SAME. It was by far the greatest revelation of my entire life, causing everything that was ever worth learning in my previous experiences fall into place in one instant. At that moment, for example, I understood the meaning of one of my favorite quatrains in the Bhagavad Gita:
To an enlightened Brahmin,
all of the Vedas are of no more importance
than a bucket of water is
to a man surrounded by the ocean.
I FULLY understood the UNIVERSE (unity-diversity) with a part of my being that lies dormant, I had the experience of being at once a drop of water and THE OCEAN of which the drop is but a part. We were the same and yet distinct.
I WAS God. Or part of God. But, God was all of me, along with all of creation. More precisely, I was in communication with that part of me that cannot be destroyed and has been here since the beginning and will be here until the “end of the ends.” (whatever that means)
I was also a separate entity. There was no time. There was no birth. There was no death. There was only the pure state of infinite BEING. And in that pure state, I understood the words attributed to Jesus when he talked of being AT ONE with the father. And, I fully understood that all men and women, along with all of creation, are “connected” and yet, don’t know it. Or very few of them know it. Otherwise, they would act differently toward one another.
And, later, when I read the words, attributed to Jesus, in answer to a question about Abraham, to which he replied, “Before Abraham was – I AM,” I knew for sure that Jesus (or the one who wrote the words) understood the answer to the greatest riddle of all, the riddle of unity and diversity and of the Eternal Now.
Bill responded to the question out of his own profound experience, rather than out of his theoretical ideas.
Then he said, “I suppose that has little to do with believing in “God.” I might ask the questioner to define the term God and then I could decide whether I believed in it.”
He answered the question perfectly, and the only way that makes sense or matters: out of personal experience.
The question also reminded him of an experience he had the day before, on his boat with his three-year old granddaughter, Nicole. They had scene glimpses of dolphins and Nicole was very excited and kept looking for more. Then a dolphin leaped out of the water and Nicole exclaimed, “I saw the whole thing, the whole dolphin, and I even saw his eyes!”
Her excitement had a special quality–an epiphany. Bill said, “She realized that the dolphin could see her, too, and maybe it did see her!”
We want to see, and to be seen. That’s what’s required for authenticity. That’s my understanding of Weiman’s definition of God as Creative Interchange. I told Bill I should change the sermon title to ‘Nicole and the Dolphin.’
What do you think? How would you respond to the question, “Do you believe in God?”
Ann Morrow Lindburg, with a touch of Weiman’s Creative Interchange, says it this way in her book, Gift From the Sea:
A good relationship has a pattern like a dance and is build on some of the same rules. The partners do not need to hold on tightly, because they move confidently in the same pattern, intricate, but gay and swift and free like a country dance of Mozart’s. To touch heavily would be to arrest the pattern and freeze the movement, to check the endlessly changing beauty of its unfolding. There is not place here for the possessive clutch, the clinging arm, the heavy hand; only the barest touch in passing. Now arm in arm, now face to face, now back to back, it does not matter which because they know they are partners moving to the same rhythm, creating a pattern together, and being invisibly nourished by it. The joy of such a pattern is the joy of creation, or the joy of participation. It is also the joy of living in the moment. Lightness of touch and living in the moment are intertwined.