The day of opening night of the play Proof we got a letter in the mail addressed to the cast. I expected a ‘break-a-leg’ message; instead I it contained four web sites for fundamentalist Christian’s ‘proof’ that Jesus is Lord…and, by implication, ‘if you don’t believe it I’ll break both legs!’ Oh, well.
Let’s talk about God – the ancient gods, and the god you used to believe in but don’t believe in anymore, and the post-modern god and see if anything is left besides a respectful silence.
Mark Twain had a lot to say about God and religion. He said, for example, “Our Bible reveals to us the character of our god with minute and remorseless exactness… It is perhaps the most damnatory biography that exists in print anywhere. It makes Nero an angel of light by contrast.” (Reflections on Religion, 1906)
Mark Twain said, “Faith is believing something you know ain’t true.”
When people say they don’t believe in God we know pretty well the god they’re talking about – the one Mark Twain condemns. He was, of course, accused of blasphemy and responded, “Blasphemy? No, it is not blasphemy. If God is as vast as that, he is above blasphemy; if He is as little as that, He is beneath it.” (Mark Twain: A Biography, Albert Bigelow Paine, 1912)
I’m reminded of Woody Allen’s comment: “My father was an atheist, my mother was agnostic, so they couldn’t decide which religion not to bring me up in.”
It’s fairly easy to describe the god you don’t believe in – the one who Harris, Hitchens and Dawkins have recently assigned to the dust-bin of history.
Theologian Sharon Parks says, “God is in the prepositions: beyond, among, within, beneath.”
I would add that God is also above; the concept we call God is above and beyond our comprehension, transcending rationality and logic. If God is ‘above and beyond’ our comprehension, if God transcends our rational and logical capacity, then why say anything at all? Or, better yet, why not simply vote with the atheists, both old and new?
Karen Armstrong, a former Roman Catholic nun-turned-religious scholar, has written extensively and intelligently about God and the gods, in books such as A History of God and The Battle for God, as well as books on Islam and Buddhism, and more to the point, about her own religious journey, and quite a journey it has been.
Armstrong entered a Roman Catholic convent when she was 17. She says that she was ‘smitten by the desire to find God.’
Looking back now, in her early 60’s, she says she was ‘too young to have made such a momentous decision’ at age 17. She wrote about that decision shortly after leaving the convent after seven years, renouncing her vows. She first wrote about that in a book she titled Through the Narrow Gate and later declared that the book was a ‘complete failure.’
Some years later she tried again, writing another personal memoir, The Spiral Staircase: My Climb Out of Darkness. This time, she says, she was more honest and open. I appreciated her open and honest summary of her religious odyssey, her journey inward, her inner struggle and pilgrimage to her spiritual realm.
Her latest book, her twelfth, is titled The Case for God: What Religion Really Means. This book comes close to accomplishing the goal she set for herself at age 17 when she was ‘smitten by the desire to find God.’
My goal today is to give you a taste of this accomplishment.
She says in her introduction to The Case for God, that religion ‘is a matter of a practice, and may be compared with art, music or poetry.’
Religion as poetry: who could have imagined such a thing?! (Poetry as religion works, too.)
She writes: “People of faith admit in theory that God is utterly transcendent, but they seem sometimes to assume that they know exactly who ‘he’ is and what he thinks, loves, and expects. We regularly ask God to bless our nation, save our queen, cure our sickness, or give us a fine day for the (wedding.) We (feel the need to) remind God that he has created the world and that we are miserable sinners, (just in case) this may have slipped his mind.”
Armstrong says, “… despite our scientific and technological brilliance, our religious thinking is sometimes remarkably undeveloped, even primitive.”
“Our religious thinking is remarkably undeveloped and primitive,” is an assessment not only about the fundamentalists who take the
Bible as literal truth, but it can also be applied to the atheist; I’d like to deprive you of that label, and I know you’re out there!
This brings us back to Karen Armstrong’s work in The Case for God.
“Theology,” she acknowledges, is “man-made,” and therefore it is “bound to be inadequate.”
She writes: “In most pre-modern cultures, there were two recognized ways of thinking, speaking, and acquiring knowledge. The Greeks called them mythos and logos. Both were essential and neither was considered superior to the other; they were not in conflict but complementary.”
“Each had its own sphere of competence, and it was considered unwise to mix the two. Logos (reason) was the pragmatic mode of thought that enabled people to function effectively in the world. It had, therefore, to correspond accurately to external reality. People have always needed logos to make an efficient weapon, organize their societies, or plan an expedition. Logos was forward-looking, continually on the lookout for new ways of controlling the environment, improving old insights, or inventing something fresh. Logos was essential to the survival of our species. But it had its limitations: it could not assuage human grief or find ultimate meaning in life’s struggles. For that people turned to mythos or ‘myth.’
“A myth was never intended as an accurate account of a historical event; it was something that had in some sense happened once but that also happens all the time.”
You can see why I took an immediate shine to Karen Armstrong’s latest book, A Case for God.
Unitarians have traditionally focused on logos, but in recent years, with the emphasis on ‘spirituality’ we’re finding a better balance. We Unitarians have been ‘locked in logos’ and need to liberate ourselves. I’ve always appreciated the story of Thomas Jefferson taking a razor blade to the Bible and cutting out all references to miracles and myth – what was left was the life and teachings of Jesus, but I realize, in reading Armstrong’s book, that Jefferson was ‘locked in logos.’
You may know the old joke we tell about ourselves: ‘Why do Unitarians have a hard time singing hymns? They’re too busy reading the next line to see if they agree!’ (Locked in logos!)
Armstrong explains: “During the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, a time that historians call the early modern period, Western people began to develop an entirely new kind of civilization, governed by scientific rationality and based economically on technology and capital investment. Logos achieved such spectacular results that myth was discredited and the scientific method was thought to be the only reliable means of attaining truth. This would make religion difficult, if not impossible. As theologians began to adopt the criteria of science, the mythoi of Christianity were interpreted as empirically, rationally, and historically verifiable and forced into a style of thinking that was alien to them.”
“This rationalized interpretation of religion has resulted in two distinctively modern phenomena: fundamentalism and atheism. The two are related. The defensive piety popularly known as fundamentalism erupted in almost every major faith during the twentieth century. In their desire to produce a wholly rational, scientific faith that abolished mythos in favor of logos, Christian fundamentalists have interpreted scripture with a literalism that is unparalleled in the history of religion.”
“In the United States, Protestant fundamentalists have evolved an ideology known as ‘creation science’ that regards the mythoi of the Bible as scientifically accurate.”
“Atheism is therefore parasitically dependent on the form of theism it seeks to eliminate and becomes its reverse mirror image.”
She mentions Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens, the new atheists, as examples of this ‘reverse mirror image that is parasitically dependent on the fundamentalist form of theism they rant against.
She says, “It is a pity that Dawkins, Hitchens, and Harris express themselves so intemperately, because some of their criticisms are valid. Religious people have indeed committed atrocities and crimes—but they refuse, on principle, to dialogues with theologians who are more representative of mainstream tradition. As a result, their analysis is disappointingly shallow, because it is based on such poor theology…Jewish, Christian, and Muslim theologians have insisted for centuries that God does not exist and that there is ‘nothing’ out there; in making these assertions, their aim was not to deny the reality of God but to safeguard God’s transcendence.”
She explains: “All the world faiths insist that true spirituality must be expressed consistently in practical compassion, the ability to feel with the other. If a conventional idea of God inspires empathy and respect for all others, it is doing its job.”
Listen to the way the poet expresses Armstrong’s point. In his signature poem, Song of Myself, Whitman says:
Agonies are one of my changes of garments,
I do not ask the wounded person how he feels, I myself become the wounded person…
I am the mash’d fireman with breast-bone broken,
Tumbling walls buried me in their debris,
Heat and smoke I (inhaled), I heard the yelling shouts of my comrades,
I heard the distant click of their picks and shovels,
They have clear’d the beams away, they tenderly lift me forth.
I lie in the night air in my red shirt, the pervading hush is for my sake…I lie exhausted…
White and beautiful are the faces around me, the heads are bared
of their fire-caps,
The kneeling crowd fades with the light of the torches…
(and) I am the hounded slave, I wince at the bite of the dogs,
Hell and despair are upon me, crack and again crack the marksmen,
I clutch the rails of the fence, my gore dribs, thinn’d with the
ooze of my skin,
I fall on the weeds and stones,
The riders spur their unwilling horses, haul close,
Taunt my dizzy ears and beat me violently over the head with whip-stocks.”
Compassion, Armstrong says, is at the common core of all religion; to feel with…to make a connection with another’s pain…to break down the wall that separates us…to become the wounded person!
Concluding her introductory comments she says, “There is a long religious tradition that stressed the importance of recognizing the limits of our knowledge, of silence, reticence and awe. That is what I hope to explore in this book. One of the conditions of enlightenment has always been a willingness to let go of what we thought we knew in order to appreciate truths we had never dreamed of. We may have to unlearn a great deal about religion before we can move on to new insight. It is not easy to talk about what we call ‘God,’ and the religious quest often begins with the deliberate dissolution of ordinary thought patterns.”
Her introductory comments were worth the price of admission. I’m reminded of words from Whitman recited from this pulpit last month in a sermon about ‘the evolution of God,’ where the poet declares:
“And I say to mankind, Be not curious about God,
For I who am curious about each am not curious about God,
(No array of terms can say how much I am at peace about God and
I hear and behold God in every object, yet understand God not in the least…” Song of Myself
‘Be not curious about God,’ Whitman is saying…God is mythos, not logos! Don’t think about it, feel it.
Cummings says it directly in this little poem:
Death if Death
when(instead of stopping to think)you
begin to feel it,dying
cause dying is
it mildly lively(but
& artificial &
evil & legal)
we thank thee
almighty for dying
(forgive us,o life!the sin of Death
Armstrong’s most basic point is the need to understand and appreciate the difference between logos and mythos…between a mathematical formula and a song, the difference between a bank statement and a poem…the difference between thinking and feeling, between the rational mind and the emotions of the heart, between the logical and the intuitive.
“…for when instead of stopping to think you begin to feel it…”
That line expresses the two ways of apprehending: through the rational mind, the logical analysis, and the emotional, spiritual, feeling-filled part of us…the part that is way down deep, the place where the battle rages…the wars that are going on ‘down there where the spirit meets the bone.’
Sharon Parks says, “God is in the prepositions: beyond, among, within, beneath.” The prepositions are the connecting links between nouns, pronouns and phrases in a sentence. The prepositions provide religion, since religion means ‘to re-connect.’
God, then, is in the prepositions: beyond our human understanding, but among us when we’re in right relationship within us when we sense our connection to one another and when we sense our eternal connection to all of Nature. God is beneath all we are and all we do –as Paul Tillich said, “God is not a being, God is the ground of all being.”
All God talk is pure poetry – an attempt to express something deep, to touch something sacred, to affirm the spiritual dimension. God is beyond our understanding but ‘sits at the foundation of our faith.’ That’s a metaphor, expressed with a sense of humility that is intended to affirm our shared faith – our faith in ourselves, one another and the universe and allows us to sail into the unknown horizon of tomorrow with courage and enthusiasm.
John Ciardi expresses this sentiment in his poem White Heron with which we’ll close:
What lifts the heron leaning on the air
I praise without a name. A crouch, a flare,
a long stroke through the cumulus of trees,
a shaped thought at the sky — then gone. O rare!
Saint Francis, being happiest on his knees,
would have cried Father! Cry anything you please
But praise. By any name or none. But praise
the white original burst that lights
the heron on his two soft kissing kites.
When saints praise heaven lit by doves and rays,
I sit by pond scums till the air recites
It’s heron back. And doubt all else. But praise.