Opening words from The Tao te Ching, Lao Tzu
The Tao that can be told is not the eternal Tao.
The name that can be named is not the eternal name.
The nameless is the beginning of heaven and Earth.
The named is the mother of the ten thousand things.
Ever desireless, one can see the mystery.
Ever desiring, one sees the manifestations.
These two spring from the same source but differ in name; this appears as darkness.
Darkness within darkness.
The gate to all mystery.
Matthew 5: “Beware of practicing your piety before men in order to be seen by them; for then you will have no reward from your Father who is in heaven. 2 “Thus, when you give alms, sound no trumpet before you, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, that they may be praised by men. Truly, I say to you, they have received their reward. 3 But when you give alms, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, 4 so that your alms may be in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you. 5 “And when you pray, you must not be like the hypocrites; for they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners, that they may be seen by men. Truly, I say to you, they have received their reward. 6 But when you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you. 7 “And in praying do not heap up empty phrases as the Gentiles do; for they think that they will be heard for their many words. 8 Do not be like them, for your Father knows what you need before you ask him. 9 Pray then like this: Our Father…
Once again, God has been dragged, kicking and screaming, into the political season. My response to the campaigning with all of its political posturing about God and religion/faith , is “Oh, God! Here we go again…the contest to see who is the biggest fan of the Father!
Thus the sermon title, as in, “Oh, God, here we go again!”
(Originally the title was “Oh, God,” in response to the question I’m sometimes asked…do I believe in God, or what do I believe about God.)
The New Yorker’s Hendrik Hertzberg had an interesting commentary about the battle for God’s campaign endorsement. Hertzberg writes:
“If you happen to be a Republican campaign operative and/or a Fox News Channel chat host, that unexpectedly joyful Convention in Charlotte the other week made for glum viewing. One of the few points of light on the right was the discovery, just as the festivities were getting under way, that the Democrats had drafted a platform that—like George Washington’s farewell address, Abraham Lincoln’s “House Divided” speech, and the Constitution of the United States—does not mention God by name. Hallelujah!
He says, “According to Media Matters, Fox News managed to alert its viewers to this deplorable development twenty-two times within the first sixteen hours after the Convention’s opening session.
“Soon, the word came down from the White House, one ‘God’ was penciled in, and the delegates saw that it was good. (The Democratic Party now officially regards “potential” as “God-given.”) Anyway, on closer inspection, the platform turned out to be anything but a paean to irreligion. Indeed, you didn’t have to be a follower of Dawkins, Harris, and Hitchens to find the plank entitled “Faith” a little cloying: (too sweet) it says, in part:
“Faith has always been a central part of the American story, and it has been a driving force of progress and justice throughout our history. We know that our nation, our communities, and our lives are made vastly stronger and richer by faith and the countless acts of justice and mercy it inspires. Faith-based organizations will always be critical allies in meeting the challenges that face our nation and our world—from domestic and global poverty to climate change and human trafficking. People of faith and religious organizations do amazing work . . .”
“And so on.”
In the battle for God’s endorsement, Romney pledged: “I will not take God out of … our platform, I will not take God off our coins. And I will not take God out of my heart!”
What did the rabbi say in that famous Sermon on the Mount? “Beware of practicing your piety before (the voters) in order to be seen by them; for then you will have no reward…sound no trumpet before you, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, that they may be praised…”
It’s so reassuring to hear that he won’t take God off our coins…God must be so relieved! In truth it’s a sacrilege to put God’s name on money…as the good book says, “For the love of money is the root of all evil: which while some coveted after, they have erred from the faith, and pierced themselves through with many sorrows.” I Timothy 6
Speaking of not taking God off our coins, it’s really a bit strange that ‘in god we trust’ was stamped on our coins under Lincoln’s watch, since Lincoln refused to join a religious institution. When questioned by the mother of his friend, Henry Ranking, who asked why he didn’t go to church or wasn’t a member of any religious group, Lincoln said:
“I do not see that I am more astray though perhaps in a different direction than many others whose points of view differ widely from each other in the sectarian denominations. They all claim to be Christians, and interpret their several creeds as infallible ones. Yet they differ and discuss these questionable subjects without settling them with any mutual satisfaction among themselves.
“I doubt the possibility, or propriety, of settling the religion of Jesus Christ in the models of man-made creeds and dogmas. It was a spirit in the life that He laid stress on and taught, if I read aright. I know I see it to be so with me.
“The fundamental truths reported in the four Gospels as from the lips of Jesus Christ, and that I first heard from the lips of my mother, are settled and fixed moral precepts with me. I have concluded to dismiss from my mind the debatable wrangles that once perplexed me with distractions that stirred up, but never absolutely settled anything. I have tossed them aside with the doubtful differences which divide denominations, sweeping them all out of my mind among the non-essentials. I have ceased to follow such discussions or to be interested in them.
“I cannot without mental reservations assent to long and complicated creeds and catechisms. If the church would ask simply for assent to the Savior’s statement of the substance of the law: “Thou shalt love the Lord God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind, and thy neighbor as thyself,” that church would I gladly unite with.”
Now back to how ‘in God we trust’ got stamped on our coins. In 1864, Treasury Secretary Salmon P. Chase acted on a proposal to stamp God on our coins so that the North could claim that ‘God is on our side.’ He told the Director of the Mint, James Pollock, to begin drawing up possible designs that would include the religious phrase. Chase chose his favorite designs and presented a proposal to Congress for the new designs in late 1863.
But America’s founders were more cautious about stamping the name of God on anything. They said, “No religious Test shall ever be required as a Qualification to any Office or public Trust under the United States.”
In 1787 the Founders stamped E Pluribus Unum – out of the many, one – on U.S. coins.
Fortunately, the Founders built a wall of separation between church and state, but it hasn’t kept candidates for public office from the passing the required God test.
Lincoln would not be elected today. His answer, as stated above, would be political suicide, and I like to believe that he had too much integrity to be intimidated into taking the name of God in vain, the way it is, now.
In Judaism the name of God is too sacred to be uttered; the strict Jew uses the enigmatic words Ehyeh asher ehyeh; ‘I am that I am; I will be what I will be,’ the phrase uttered to Moses from the burning bush when he was instructed to go back to Egypt to liberate his people who were in bondage.
Moses’s mission, to liberate those who were enslaved, is a metaphor for our own individual and collective need for liberation. There are liberating ideas of God: eg. Henry Nelson Weiman’s two-word definition of God as ‘creative interchange,’ making God a verb; or Martin Buber’s I and Thou, suggesting that the ‘sacred’ is discovered when we think of the other as sacred as opposed to an object (I – It); or the teaching of Jesus who said ‘as you have done it to one of the least of these you have done it to me.’
Jefferson’s reference to ‘Nature’s God’ was a way to avoid a claiming a supernatural God – the man-in-the-sky God who has a hand in the day-to-day workings of the world – the kind of God who will, if asked, provide a sunny day for your daughter’s wedding, or for Notre Dame’s football team to win.
Jefferson’s Deity created the universe with all of its laws – which we call Science — and leaves the rest up to us to take care of…the Deistic position.
Jefferson’s Deity was, as Hertzberg pointed out, not “…the sort of deity who begets sons, writes books, performs miracles, and determines the outcome of football games.”
Hertzberg says, “That God won’t hunt.”
So, what kind of God do we Unitarian Universalists have to offer…and how would I respond to the question about my personal belief, or lack of it, about God?
I like the famous Jewish scholar of the 12th century, Moses ben Maimonedes’ approach…his careful approach, to the God question. First of all, Maimonedes was inspired by the ‘fundamental tenet of Scholasticism: there can be no contradiction between the truths which God has revealed and the findings of science.’
Science, in other words, is God’s way of revealing how the Universe works. You can, of course, talk about the laws of the Universe without invoking the deity, but calling the laws of the Universe God’s revelation is a way of keeping the peace between science and religion; and I must say that, for the most part, it’s not a bad idea.
Maimonides ‘primarily relied on science’ and the truths he saw revealed in the teachings of the Talmud – the commentary on the Torah, the word of God.
Maimonides promoted what’s referred to as Apophatic theology, or what’s more commonly known as ‘negative theology.’ In his approach to theology, rather than talking about what God is, you say what God is not.
Maimonides wanted to avoid painting a picture of an anthropomorphic god – a man who is ‘out there,’ or, to put it bluntly, a ‘man-made god.’ Man created god in his own image.
By saying what God is not, Maimonides suggested that you will arrive at positive attributes of God – by saying what you don’t believe about God, you arrive at what you can affirm – or, what you do believe.
The anthropomorphic god has human qualities, so it is a projection of ourselves. If that was the only way of thinking about God, I certainly would not be able to call myself a theist – a believer.
The story about God begetting a son whom he sent to save us I take to be mythology. We can identify with it – and that’s what myth is meant to do – to see yourself in the story.
We humans have children, and we humans save one another, sometimes literally saving someone’s life, as literally happened to me when I was drowning and was pulled out of the water by a friend; or we ‘save one another’ in the sense of providing something we need in our lives – like a friend whose empathy and compassion provide comfort and understanding and save us from falling into the depths of despair and emptiness.
The Savior, or the Messiah, is ‘the person next to you.’
The anthropomorphic god we hear politicians and clergy talk about is idolatry, pure and simple. It’s what the Commandments call making ‘graven images.’
An image, as the word suggests, is a product of our imagination – the anthropomorphic god is a mirror image of us…a god who has human qualities or attributes.
The anthropomorphic god is made in man’s own image, born of idolatry.
I like the description of the Tao in the first chapter of the Tao Te Ching, attributed to the Chinese sage, Lao Tsu:
The Tao that can be told is not the eternal Tao. The name that can be named is not the eternal name.
I like Emerson’s affirmation in his poem Self-Reliance:
I will not live out of me
I will not see with others’ eyes…
Henceforth, please God, forever I forego
The yoke of men’s opinions. I will be
Lighthearted as a bird & live with God.
I find him in the bottom of my heart
I hear continually his Voice therein
And books, & priests, & worlds, I less esteem
Who says the heart’s a blind guide? It is not.
My heart did never counsel me to sin
I wonder where it got its wisdom
For in the darkest maze amid the sweetest baits
Or amid horrid dangers never once
Did that gentle Angel fail of his oracle
The little needle always knows the north
The little bird remembereth his note
And this wise Seer within me never errs
I never taught it what it teaches me
I only follow when I act aright.
Whence then did this Omniscient Spirit come?
Sometimes I’m asked if I am a theist, or agnostic, or atheist. I can honestly say ‘yes’ to all three…
When I hear people talk about an anthropomorphic God I’m an atheist.
When I hear people talk about the Great Mystery I’m an agnostic…I accept the limits of our knowing.
When I hear someone express their appreciation for the gift of Life…the opportunity to form caring relationships…the sense of wonder…I and Thou…Creative Interchange; I’m a theist.
The deist idea is appealing, at times: God created the universe and left it into our hands.
I like the pantheist idea – the idea that God is in everything and is everywhere. It’s not atheistic, but it’s not theistic in the traditional sense. It’s monotheistic in the sense of asserting that God is One, as distinguished from the monotheistic assertion ‘there is one God.’
To affirm that God is One is a way of incorporating the Unitarian notion, but without getting stuck with making God a ‘person.’
Pantheism incorporates the Universalist notion that all souls are ‘saved,’ as opposed to the idea of election, or predestination, or the idea that God chooses favorites. Or, better yet, it affirms the idea our forebears called ‘salvation by character.’
After a recent sermon on The Swerve, which focuses on Lucretius’s poem, On the Nature of Things, and listing his conclusions, I was asked if I agree with Lucretius.
What I most ‘agree’ with is that Lucretius wrote On the Nature of Things as a poem Theology or religion at it’s best is metaphor.
The thing is, the word atheist is often used in our culture as a condemnation of another person or class of persons. In earlier times it was an accusation – a kind of witch hunt – that often resulted in burning at the stake, or some variation of it by the ‘true believers.’
After her death (1997) we were interested to learn something about Mother Teresa’s inner life – a part of her life about which she kept silent.
We learned from her letters to her spiritual advisors and her personal journal jottings, that she struggled with serious religious or theological doubts – she wrestled with those doubts in what she called ‘… a painful crisis of faith, a dark night of the soul.’
Mother Teresa’s said:
“God cannot be found in noise and restlessness. God is the friend of silence. See how nature – trees, flowers, grass – grows in silence; see the stars, the moon and the sun, how they move in silence.”
She worked with spiritual counselors to try to resolve her dilemma, which reportedly she was never able to do completely. Nor am I, able to resolve it within myself, and I suspect are might not have it resolved, either.
Look again at her statement: “God cannot be found in noise and restlessness…look at the trees, flowers, grass, planets and moon, sun and stars…and be still.’
I prefer to spell the word God with a capital N for Nature. With Margaret Fuller I’m able to say, ‘I accept the Universe.’
I accept the limits of my knowledge…or should I say ‘I accept the limits of our knowledge.’ We live in a Great Mystery, and if there’s a God who designed it that way, well, good for Him. Or Her. Or It. And if it just evolved that way, well, good for us.
I’m thankful for the freedom to express my views without fear…
A long-time friend and clergy colleague once said that he thought I was a Confusionist. I like that! I also like the poem with which I’ll close:
Cirrus, by Jack Myers
I’d like to leave
a lighter imprint
on the world
than I’d formerly
meant. Just a scent,
not the thud of the thing
steaming on a plate.
Instead of “I told you so!”
let my epitaph be
the glance, the edge,
the mist. The delicately
of an innuendo
instead of a thunderhead.
The rain that fell
when I was ambitious
seemed conspiringly rushed
in my way. But the same rain
today tastes of here and now
because of where it’s been.
I’d like to be gentle
with small, great things.
They are larger
than what we think
we came here for.
I’d like to be an eye of light
that opens the air
and burns beyond ambition,
like the sun that can’t see us
and is beyond our reach
yet is in us a trillion times over