A Religion More Complete

I would like to tell you a couple of stories.

The first involves an artist; she became the director of a non-profit arts organization that uses primarily volunteers in a small, tight-knit community. As part of her contract, she was given two years to complete a list of goals that included viability of the organization, publicity, and programming. Her first year was spent making great strides, but also making mistakes; she was over-reaching in her programming, scheduling too many events. She overestimated the draw of some performers, seeing a scant dozen or so in the audience. But she did have some great successes, and she knew that the terms of her contract allowed her room to experiment and correct. At the end of the season, she completed an exhaustive analysis – what worked, what didn’t, and what would change for the next season so she could complete the two-year goals.

Unfortunately, the board who managed her contract decided she had failed to meet her two-year goals in one year and summarily dismissed her. She was furious, but she kept her fury to herself and her family. Unfortunately, members of the board felt free not only to talk about the situation but to vilify the woman. They publicly accused her of mismanagement of funds and of incompetence. Other members of the community rose up in an uproar against this woman, and one even went to the press to “expose” the woman’s perceived incompetence.

The woman was in shock. Where was privacy? Where was the respect for one another? Where was the common sense of keeping personnel issues private? Where was the willingness to listen to one another? Where was the basic human dignity? She became so angry and cut off from her community that she began to wonder if people are actually evil and only God can save them. She turned to prayer, as it was the only way to find solace. She spent years thinking her faith in people was misguided, that given a choice, they would listen to the demons, not the better angels. She stopped being involved in anything having to do with her community, and ultimately faced some major health issues as she tried to deal with her anger and hurt. She knew only God was a steadfast comfort and relied on her faith in God to get her through.

The second story starts in a perfect cliché: it was a dark and stormy night. The woman in this story had just left the church after a choir rehearsal and a short meeting with her minister. It was pouring rain outside; the kind of rain where if you just look at it you get wet – not so much drops as buckets of water coming out of the sky. She sloshed her way to her car and eased out of the parking lot onto the quiet street toward home. On the best of nights, this road was dark, but on this night, the absence of streetlights was noticeable. The woman drove carefully – slower than normal to avoid hydroplaning. A light ahead turned yellow, and she slowed early to make sure she didn’t slide through the intersection. After the light turned green again, she eased out… and suddenly a large black something was in front of her car, then on top of her car, then behind her car. She stopped and screamed, then called 911. Others stopped too – despite the heavy downpour, two drivers and several people standing outside a restaurant came over to help. One helped her, one waited for the first officers, two went to the black something in the middle of the road.

Sadly, the black something was a homeless Desert Storm veteran, who they think committed vehicular suicide. But this woman, through no fault of her own, knew she had caused someone to die. She knew she had done all the right things, and there was no citation, arrest, or cause of concern from a legal or insurance standpoint. But she was angry. What kind of god would let this happen? The people around her – those who stopped, the police officers, the hospital personnel, her family, her minister, and her congregation – were amazing. She relied on them, and they in turn helped her heal. But she could not stop being angry at God and decided maybe she didn’t believe in God. In the few years following, she lost her mother, had back surgery, and lost her livelihood. It took years before she was able to even entertain the idea that she could talk to God, or that God might have anything to offer other than another crisis.

Now while many of the details have been changed to protect the innocent – and not so innocent – what these stories have in common is that both women are me.

And therein lies the challenge; sometimes I am most definitely a theist, and other times, I am most surely a humanist.

I may be alone in this – but this has been my internal struggle for years. I have resigned myself to being a bit weak, for when I read works by our theists – William Ellery Channing, James Freeman Clarke, Rebecca Parker – I am convinced that God is present. I am swayed by the evidence that there is something bigger than us, a benevolent force for good that loves us as expansively as parents love their children, a divine creator that is larger and more infinite than we can possibly imagine.

And then I read the work by our humanists – John Dietrich, Curtis Reese, Paul Rasor – and I am convinced that humanity is the house for celebration and promise, the wellspring of integrity, reason, responsibility, and compassion, that it is our innate nature to bring out the best in humanity for the sake of humanity.

Maybe it’s just me. Maybe I’m the only one who struggles with this. In 2002, former UUA president William Schultz suggested that the theist-humanist controversy was long over, because the basic principles of humanism have come to pervade our larger culture, tenets such as

  • Showing love to all humans.
  • Immortality is found in the examples we set and the work we do.
  • We gain insight from many sources and all cultures.
  • We have the power within ourselves to realize the best we are capable of as human beings.
  • We are responsible for what we do and become.

These are strongly reflected in our own principles:

  • The inherent worth and dignity of every person;
  • Justice, equity and compassion in human relations;
  • Acceptance of one another and encouragement to spiritual growth;
  • A free and responsible search for truth and meaning;
  • The right of conscience and the use of the democratic process;
  • The goal of world community;
  • Respect for the interdependent web of all existence.

Yet if we have resolved the theist-humanist controversy in our principles, have we resolved it in our practice? I know that there are some congregations that are quite Christian in their bent – such as All Souls in Tulsa. There are some who are quite humanist, such as Community Church of New York. Someone from First Universalist in Minneapolis would have a hard time at Kings Chapel in Boston. And even within our congregations, there are people who collect in quiet corners to ‘confess’ a theological perspective that may not be in line with their fellow members.

No less the battle some of us experience within ourselves, which often get amplified by tragedy and crisis. I have experienced problems so big that I want to give up believing in anything. People are terrible, and God’s not real.

To be honest, that’s where I was as late as Saturday morning. It’s been a tough week, full of crisis and tragedy that has revealed both the ugly side of human nature and the absence of God. I struggled to see how I could offer you a message of inspiration, comfort, or encouragement when I didn’t see anything positive at all. I’m usually an optimist, but this past week, I could not see even the first glimmer hope. Yet I didn’t think you would let me get up and say “people are terrible and God’s not real” and then walk out. It wouldn’t be much of a sermon… although I bet you’d be talking about it for years.

But that would also be a cop-out, because despite the rough times, I know that underneath it all are my core beliefs, which ultimately get me through times of trial and tribulation. It is my core beliefs that remind me that it’s okay to wrestle with God and with others, because in the wrestling – in the questioning – comes understanding.

We are fortunate: within our faith, there is room for us to have a variety of opinions about God and humanity – not only from person to person but within each person… and know that there is room for them to change. We have space as Unitarian Universalists to wrestle, to question, to resonate with different ideas at different times.

You might resonate with William Wordsworth’s way of describing God in “Tintern Abbey”:

“A sense sublime of something far more deeply interfused, whose dwelling is the light of setting suns, and the round ocean and the living air, and the blue sky, and in the mind of man: a motion and a spirit, that impels all thinking things, all objects of all thought, and rolls through all things.” [1]

You might resonate with Lisa Schwartz, who believes

“we experience God on several different planes simultaneously: as the transcendent, mysterious other; as the force of life and inspiration within ourselves; and in the faces of other people, both our friends and our enemies.”

You might resonate with Anthony Pinn, who avoids talk of transcendence:

“From my perspective,” he writes, “there is nothing behind the symbol God. In its place, I affirm the idea of community. It is in community that we are encouraged to develop our full human potential and overcome oppression.”

You might resonate with Elizabeth Ellis, who suggests that

“God is in the nitty gritty work of loving one another in the social, economic, political, and material world. We are called to understand the world’s systems and its evils and to establish mutual love in spite of all our unlovability. At the same time, through attention to prayer we discover God, who beckons us to know Mystery in life; we discover a Love without beginning or end in which we live, which lives in us, and which offers us unimaginable joy beyond our expectations.”

Or you might resonate with Erik Walker Wikstrom, who believes

“in a personal God who is not a person, who is a Mystery beyond my ability to comprehend, yet no less real for my confusion. This God is wholly Other, yet also ‘as close as my own breath.’ I cannot say what God is,” he continues, “though I know in my soul that God is. God is known by many names, yet is not fully known by any name. Even so, God can be known and loved, and God loves us all.”

Or, you might resonate with me, in that moment when I read more deeply the humanist writer John Dietrich’s essay “Unitarianism and Humanism.” Dietrich points out that humanism does not exclude belief in God. Rather, one can believe in God and still place faith in humanity, a knowledge of people, and our duties toward one another. Yes, Dietrich suggests that humanism shifts religious emphasis from God to humans, but it doesn’t exclude faith in a higher power. Rather, it focuses our attention not just on God but onto the condition of human life “in order that by human effort human life may be improved.” He continues: “[Humanism] is really the same thing as faith in God; for, whatever God may be, it is quite clear that he can manifest himself only through man’s consciousness, and that we shall get more and more knowledge of him only by believing that our highest impulses are his manifestations, tempered by our capacity to receive them.”

This is reinforced by James Freeman Clarke’s five points of the Unitarian Faith, published in 1885, which famously begin with The Fatherhood of God and the Brotherhood of Man. (Today, we would say the parenthood of God and the family of humanity – as a side note, it’s an adventure quoting our Unitarian and Universalist forbearers, who did not wrestle with inclusive language the way we wrestle today.)

These ideas – the parenthood of God and the family of humanity – are remarkably ancient. In fact, you can find them in writings from the first century of the common era, which record the teachings of a man who preached in first century Palestine. This man taught that we are to love one another. We are to think of each other as sisters and brothers, all as children of God. We are to feed, clothe, and shelter one another, because this is what you do for sisters and brothers. We are to be radically hospitable to everyone – strangers, foreigners, the downtrodden – because this is what you do for sisters and brothers. We are to help each other out, because this is what you so for sisters and brothers. If we are children of God, as this teacher suggests, then we must treat each human being we encounter as if they are our brother or sister.

Yes. I am suggesting that Jesus was a humanist. Sure, he also taught us how to love God, so he clearly was a theist. But even two thousand years ago, it was possible to bridge the gap between theism and humanism.

I shared this thought with a humanist friend, who first said “but they’re not compatible” but who then realized that there is a link. She said that whether we’re motivated by something external or internal, what’s most important is that we try to be wise and kind and do our best in the world. In other words, put our faith – however we define it – into action to help others. Doctor Benjamin Rush, a Universalist and a signer of the Declaration, said that we must commit to social justice, which he calls “an inescapable consequence” of our faith.

It’s not always easy – whether your faith begins with a higher power or with our humanity – to be engaged with others. This week, and at other times in my life, I’ve been willing – eager, even – to disengage from both people and the Divine. But two interesting things happened. First, I called a friend to process the crisis, and when I said “all people are jerks” she said in a funny Monty Python-esque voice, “well, I’m not” in a way that made me laugh. I realized that no, she wasn’t, and maybe there were others around who weren’t jerks either. Her love for humanity extended to me in that moment, and it made hope a little more accessible.

And then later in the week, I talked to a different friend who was facing an odd little financial crisis – one of those pesky gaps between paychecks that sometimes occur – and while she still had some food, I could see that a quiet $20 passed into her hands would make all the difference in the world. Before I could help myself, I handed her the cash, and she lit up with a combination of gratitude and joy. It made me smile, and in her eyes I saw a glimpse of the Divine; maybe God was real after all.

Maybe the lesson here – for me, for all of us – is that there is room, even in small amounts, for good, whether driven by our faith in a higher power or our faith in each other. Maybe wherever we find our faith, what matters is the truth in our hearts. Maybe when one perspective fails, we can find solace in knowing there is room in our faith for another perspective. Maybe when our hearts are in a holy place, we can dwell as we need to in the parenthood of God and the family of humanity.

Let us make room for grace and comfort and all that is holy.

[1] This and the following four paragraphs are taken from the UUA pamphlet “UU Views of God”, edited by Paul Rasor.

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