Listen to the following voices in the endless conversation about God:
From Hindu sacred scripture, the Chandogya Upanishad, written more than 2500 years ago: “Brahman is supreme; he is self-luminous, he is beyond all thought. Subtler than the subtlest is he, farther than the farthest, nearer than the nearest. He resides in the heart of every being.”
But then there is novelist Gunther Grass, writing in 1970: “I don’t know about God…. The only things I know are what I see, hear, feel, and smell.”
This is just one thread in the endless conversation, and here is another:
Theologian Thomas Altizer, writing in 1965: “We must recognize that the death of God is a historical event: God has died in our time, in our history, in our existence.”
But then there is philosopher Hannah Arendt, writing five years later in 1970: “The way God has been thought of for thousands of years is no longer convincing; if anything is dead, it can only be the traditional thought of God.”
Finally, consider a third thread in the endless conversation:
The ancient Greek philosopher Xenophanes, writing before the time of Socrates and Plato: “The Ethiopians make their gods black-skinned and snub-nosed; the Thracians say theirs have blue eyes and red hair. If oxen and horses had hands and could draw and make works of art as men do, then horses would draw their gods to look like horses, and oxen like oxen–each would make their bodies in the image of their own.”
But then there is philosopher Obert Tanner, writing in 1989: “While the ideas about God may appear to change, the experience of God appears to abide with people in all ages.”
All these threads in the endless conversation about God. Brahman is subtler than the subtlest, farther than the farthest, nearer than the nearest; but then how can we know anything beyond what we can see, hear, feel, and smell? And should we even be bothered by such a thing? Then there are the horrors and atrocities of the 20thcentury—proof that God is dead; or is it just the traditional idea of God that has died? Finally, there is the insight that people create God in their own image; but is that all there is to it, and God images are expressive of nothing more than human biology and human need? Or do our God images—as varying as they might be, conditioned by language and history and culture as they are—nevertheless point to a Sacred Reality that exists timelessly in its own right?
God is a complicated issue to talk about. Once you start doing that, and I mean really doing that—asking tough questions in all sincerity, no holds barred, as well as speaking out of your authentic experience and understanding—you enter into the endless conversation, and the sheer diversity and complexity of opinion can bewilder.
But this happens, as well: the conversation changes your life. It takes you places that you never thought you would go. This is what I want to focus on today, as it is illustrated by our collective Unitarian Universalist history. Our centuries-long struggle with the God question has taken our religion to the ironic place of making no official pronouncements about God at all—leaving it up to the dictates of individual experience and reason and conscience. And to many people who are not already Unitarian Universalist, this is quite odd. It can even be odd for people who ARE Unitarian Universalist. How can Unitarian Universalism be a real religion when it takes no official stand on the most basic and crucial of metaphysical issues? Every other religion takes some kind of stand: why not Unitarian Universalism?
Today I want us to bring awareness to why this is so. Our honest and fervent grappling with the God question over the past several centuries has brought us to this place. We are in this place today with integrity. There are crucial lessons to learn.
Let’s take a closer look, and consider our unique Unitarian Universalist contribution to the endless conversation about God.
We begin almost 500 years ago: October 27, 1553. A cold and rainy day in Geneva, Switzerland. A procession of people are heading outside the city’s walls to a hillside, where a man named Michael Servetus is to be burned at the stake, with a book strapped to his thigh called The Restitution of Christianity. It was a book he himself had written; he wrote it to save Christianity from some particular Christians; it was why he was to be burned. Burned for heresy. Burned for proclaiming a message that authorities felt would lead others to believe wrong things and so put them in threat of eternal hellfire and damnation.
To prevent such permanent torment for others, the authorities would subject Servetus’s body to temporary torment. The temporary torment was permissible, to secure a greater good for all. This was the logical thinking at the time.
It was, to put it crudely, the most cost-effective course of action.
Servetus had to go.
What was it all about? To a significant degree, it was like a quarrel between family members, which can be the most vicious battle of all. Servetus was a religious reformer, one of the many people who made up the Protestant Reformation in Europe, along with Martin Luther and John Calvin. “God himself is our spirit dwelling in us,” Servetus once said, “and this is the Holy Spirit within us. In this we testify that there is in our spirit a certain working latent energy, a certain heavenly sense, a latent divinity and it bloweth where it listeth and I hear its voice and I know not whence it comes nor whither it goes. So is everyone that is born of the spirit of God.” This is what he said, so long ago, and can you hear the echo of an idea much more ancient, an idea like that of Hinduism’s Atman? Or perhaps you sense in it the echo of a more recent idea: that of Quakerism’s “Inner Light”?
“There is in us a certain working latent energy,” he says, and what you must know about Servetus is that he most felt this energy at work in his mind. The latent divinity there “bloweth where it listeth,” and where this took him was to apply reason to established religious doctrines and practices, just like the other religious reformers of the time. Their collective question was: Which established doctrines and practices block people from connecting with God because they come from human ignorance and corruption? Which ones have the opposite effect, and build bridges to the Divine?
This is exactly where the family quarrel part comes in. Michael Servetus wasn’t just any kind of Protestant reformer—he was a RADICAL Protestant reformer. He wanted reform to go ALL the way, not just SOME of the way. Luther and Calvin had severed the relationship between the state and the Catholic Church in Germany and in Switzerland, but then they turned right around and created new alliances between the state and their own churches. But to the radical reformers, this church-state alliance was itself an example of human ignorance and corruption. And so was the doctrine of the Trinity—the idea that God is three separate persons who are somehow also one. Luther and Calvin would not let go of this doctrine, but Servetus said that true reform required it. Not only is the doctrine NOT scripture-based, it also poses a huge obstacle to the believer’s relationship with God. Servetus put it like this: “But what else is being without God but being unable to think about God, when there is always presented to our understanding a haunting kind of confusion of three beings, by which we are forever deluded into supposing that we are thinking about God?”
Essentially, he is saying that intellectual confusion and lack of clarity are tantamount to separation from God.
On many other things, the Protestant reformers agreed. But not on these things. Not on the church-state alliance. And not on the Trinity. The resulting quarrel was vicious—and we know how it ended. Servetus burned, with his book The Restitution of Christianity strapped to his thigh. The power of the state—in control of his arch-enemy John Calvin—leveled against him.
But now listen to one response to what happened to Servetus. It comes from another religious reformer of the time, Sebastian Castellio. Castellio’s plea was for tolerance. “To burn a man,” he insisted, “is not to defend a doctrine. It is to burn a man.” “Let me have the liberty of my faith as you have of yours. At the heart of religion I am one with you. It is in reality the same religion; only on certain points of interpretation I see differently from you. But however we differ in opinion, why cannot we love one other?” Sebastian Castellio goes on to say, “There are, I know, persons who insist that we should believe even against reason. It is, however, the worst of all errors, and it is laid on me to fight it…. Let no one think he is doing wrong in using his mental faculties. It is our proper way at arriving at the truth.”
This is what Sebastian Castellio had to say, almost 500 years ago, in 1553.
And there it is—one of the formative stories of our Unitarian Universalist religion. Just listen to the themes: (1) “God himself is the spirit dwelling in us” moving us towards reform; (2) the centrality of the mind in the religious life, so that “what else is being without God but being unable to think about God”; (3) vicious quarrels between otherwise-likeminded reformers; (4) a plea for tolerance; and then, (5) a reason given for the tolerance, which is a vision of religion that is based on a foundation broader and more-embracing than specific doctrines and interpretations of doctrine: love. “But however we differ in opinion, why cannot we love one another?”
Ever since leaders like Servetus and Castellio in the sixteenth-century, the growth and development of these themes has been nothing less than the story of our religion and our faith: The Spirit of God moving within; the centrality of the mind in the religious life; vicious quarrels; pleas for tolerance; and the affirmation that mutual love is larger and more important than any doctrine.
And so, turning to American Unitarianism in the early nineteenth century, we can see this pattern played out again. By the 1820s our religion had achieved definite clarity about what it stood for: God was one person and not three, and God was uniquely revealed through the life of Jesus of Nazareth as recorded in the Bible. Was Jesus God? No—but to live as Jesus lived was the way to salvation; it was the way to spiritual fulfillment in life. If “What Would Jesus Do” bracelets were available to our early nineteenth-century forbearers, they would have been wearing them.
But now, watch how the themes from the story of Servetus start to unfold once again. In the 1830s, Transcendentalists with a passion for God—like Ralph Waldo Emerson, Margaret Fuller, and Theodore Parker—start to speak out of their personal experience and speak up. People, they say, don’t need Bibles and they don’t need established Christian traditions like the communion ritual to connect with God—people can discern truths about God and the spiritual life directly, using intuition.
The Transcendentalists also argued this: that Christianity was not the only way to God. God could be known in many ways, through the many religions around the world. That’s what the Transcendentalists said.
To say the least, this was contrary to the established faith of the old guard Unitarians, who, we should understand, were a single generation of reformers themselves and had fought a good fight in their own time. After all their reformist efforts, they were looking forward to things being settled for a time—maybe a good long time—but it was not to be so. Much to their dismay, their children rebelled against what had been their own rebellion.
And then something else happened. In 1859, the publication of a work by the Unitarian biologist Charles Darwin: On the Origin of Species. This work sent shock waves throughout Christian denominations in America and triggered yet another variety of spirituality in our movement, one that rejected Transcendentalist intuition and embraced the scientific method as a key source of insight about religious matters. For people who embraced this approach, a whole new world opened up. Evolution was God’s way of creating the world. Science could become itself a kind of scripture, complementing and correcting the traditional scriptures of old.
Once again—imagine how this must have frustrated the old guard Unitarians, who got to enjoy being “old guard” for only one generation.
The impertinence of these young whippersnappers! The Transcendentalists from the left and the Scientific Theists from the right!
It was the old pattern, with all its themes, unfolding anew. Reformers stepping up to proclaim their new vision of God and the spiritual life, in the face of an established faith which had itself been crafted by reformers. No one burned at the stake, true—but vicious-enough disagreements and quarrels among people as they tried to figure out, amidst all the diversity and disagreement, what their faith actually stood for. By the 1870s, Unitarianism included (1) Christians who wanted to focus exclusively on Bible-based, “What Would Jesus Do” Christianity; (2) Christians who were open to the insights and teachings of other world religions and science; (3) people who did not consider themselves Christians but believed in God in some way; and also (4) people who argued that traditional religious language, with its words like “God,” was bankrupt and that we needed a different way of talking about spirituality altogether.
This was Unitarianism after the Civil War—moving in all sorts of different ways, having a hard time explaining itself to the world, riddled with conflict and confusion.
Religion in crisis.
What happened next was this. Sebastian Castellio’s words came alive. “Let me have the liberty of my faith as you have of yours. At the heart of religion I am one with you. It is in reality the same religion; only on certain points of interpretation I see differently from you. But however we differ in opinion, why cannot we love one other?” These words came alive for us, and they changed us as a religious movement forever. We chose love over doctrinal clarity. As the poet Edwin Markham writes, “He drew a circle that shut me out– / Heretic, rebel, a thing to flout. / But Love and I had the wit to win: / We drew a circle that took him in!” That was our answer.
If you’re a searcher and seeker after Truth; if you want to grow and be in relationship with others who want to grow; if you will honor the common good and work to preserve it with acts of generosity and love, you belong. Whatever your beliefs might be.
This way of thinking became more and more alive for us.
Interestingly, by the 1950s, Unitarian Universalists did find themselves united in belief. By the 1950s, you actually could say that there was an orthodoxy at play, and it lasted throughout the 1970s and even into the early 1980s. The orthodoxy was this: a perspective patterned somewhat after the Humanist Manifesto of 1933, which was signed by thirty-four Unitarian ministers and academics and one Universalist minister. “We are convinced,” said the signers of this Manifesto, “that the time has passed for theism…. Religious institutions, their ritualistic forms, ecclesiastical methods and communal activities must be reconstituted as rapidly as experience allows in order to function effectively in the modern world.” This is what the Manifesto said. Build a religion that “would not be shaken, even if the thought of God were outgrown” (Rev. Curtis Reese). And while, in 1933, this was a hotly contested idea in our congregations and churches, by the 1950s it had become a core ethic. God really wasn’t talked about—the topic was passé, or in bad taste. We did not have worship or sermons; we had services and academic-style lectures. It is exactly why, when in the 1980s Unitarian Universalists started to feel a call to greater spiritual diversity, that so many of us who had grown up with a humanist-oriented Unitarian Universalism felt like we were losing our religion. As an essentially Humanist faith,1950s through early 1980s Unitarian Universalism had achieved doctrinal unity; but then came the Purposes and Principles in 1985 which talked about how we are a Living Tradition with Six Sources, and while Humanism is one of these official Sources, there are five others to do justice to, including mystical traditions, world religions, our parent traditions of Judaism and Christianity, the words and deeds of prophetic men and women, and earth-based spirituality. With all Six of these Sources, spirituality-talk and God-talk of different kinds couldn’t help but come rushing back into our congregations and churches.
And so did the family quarrels.
Perhaps it may only add to the family quarrels to add a Seventh Source to the official Six we’ve had for generations, which I personally believe is necessary. I spoke about this this past September. Introducing the idea, I said, “I see our congregations ready to start grappling with the reality of the sort of evil that’s systemic as opposed to personal. For example, how there can be such a thing as racism without racists, or misogyny without misogynists. We need medicine to get unstuck. We need to stop reducing religion to only that which speaks to us as individuals and our individual efforts. We desperately need religion to speak to the reality of what it means to be a Child of God living in a cultural system that has autonomy, that lives itself through you and does this no matter what you, as an individual person, intend. We need religion to speak to the terrible systems of racism and sexism and other systems living through us and we don’t necessarily know this and the consequences are absolutely 100% unacceptable because they are inflicting suffering on us all, and on some people way more suffering than others.”
Then I went on to describe what the Seventh Source of our Faith might specifically be: “The history behind systems of cultural oppression, awareness of people’s role in them (witting or unwitting), and wisdom that helps put a person on the path of liberation for all.” Something like that. Something that formally acknowledges our need to hear the voices of people at the margins. Something that intentionally and squarely witnesses to the structural evil that Jesus was fighting 2000 years ago, which we’ve always been fighting, and we’re still fighting it, and everyone stuck in it suffers, everyone.
I believe we need this Seventh Source. It is no longer enough for it to be merely implied and in-between-the-lines of the other Six.
This may indeed trigger more quarrels.
But it is worth it, for the sake of all our souls.
And therefore it is time, once again, to remember and to choose the sheer genius of our movement, which we saw at play in the story of Michael Servetus. Our genius is not so much our capacity to proliferate ideas about God—because that will happen anyhow, with or without our participation. No—our unique Unitarian Universalist contribution to the endless conversation is our commitment to grounding religious community on something that is far deeper than beliefs, which is mutual love. “We need not think alike to love alike.”
Not that beliefs are unimportant—please hear me on this. Beliefs are absolutely worth living and dying for. And that’s the point—they are too vital and important to be legislated by the community. The individual must have freedom to choose the ones he or she will live and die by. The individual must do the spiritual work that only he or she can do, and the role of the church is to empower this.
Church is supposed to empower, not dominate.
Moving forward, let us do this: bind ourselves together by love, amidst all our diverse searching and seeking in a world that is constantly changing and has, certainly in our day and time, thrown unprecedented challenges our way. We must bind ourselves together by love, and then we must allow the Spirit of Life dwelling within us to move us towards renewal and growth in our relationships and our world. That Spirit will, in turn, lead us to speech, and maybe the word “God” is what you are led to, maybe another person is led to use different language. Let none of us be silenced. Let us say what is on our hearts, sing what is on our hearts, if we say it and sing it in love.
And as we do this, let there be tolerance. “Let me have the liberty of my faith as you have of yours,” says Sebastian Castellio from almost 500 years ago to us today. “At the heart of religion I am one with you. It is in reality the same religion; only on certain points of interpretation I see differently from you. But however we differ in opinion, why cannot we love one other?”
The history of our faith has shown us that we can do this, that we got this.
The continued existence of our faith—its continued relevance—demands it.