What Do We Talk About When We Talk About God?

 

“The Christian life is not about pleasing God the finger-shaker and judge. It is not about believing now or being good now for the sake of heaven later. It is about entering a relationship in the present that begins to change everything now. Spirituality is about this process: the opening of the heart to the God who is already here.”

Marcus J. Borg, The God We Never Knew: Beyond Dogmatic Religion to a More Authentic Contemporary Faith

“Self Portrait”

By David Whyte

 

It doesn’t interest me if there is one God or many gods.

I want to know if you belong or feel abandoned,

if you can know despair or see it in others.

I want to know if you are prepared to live in the world

with its harsh need to change you.

If you can look back with firm eye,

saying this is where I stand.

I want to know if you know

how to melt into that fierce heat of living,

falling toward the center of your longing.

I want to know if you are willing

to live, day by day, with the consequence of love

and the bitter unwanted passion of your sure defeat.

I have heard, in that fierce embrace, even

the gods speak of God.

 

Language affects perception.  Our language affects not only what we say, but what we actually perceive.

The Himba tribe of Northern Namibia have only five words to describe colors.  Serandu describes most shades of red, orange or pink.  All of the colors in an average sunset would fall under the color of serandu.  Zoozu is anything dark—very dark blue, red, purple, black, or brown.  Sky is usually described as zoozu.

Vapa are different shades of white, and some shades of yellow.  Milk and water are both said to be vapa.  Burou describes some shades of greens and blues, while Dumbu describes beige, yellow and some light green.  I would imagine most of the environment of the Himba people, living in a desert in northern Namiba would be dumbu.

Now English has 11 major categories of color, and over 100 words to carefully describe each shade of color, so one might think that our perception of color would be better than the Himba’s.  But it turns out it depends on what color we’re talking about.

While English speakers do better than the Himba at discerning green from blue, because we have different names for those two colors, we do not do as well at distinguishing two slightly different shades of green, while the Himba, who count one of them as burou and one of them as dumbu, do this easily.

Language affects perception.  Our language affects not only what we say, but what we actually perceive.

In the 2016 movie Arrival, 12 spaceships arrive at different places around the world.  A linguist, Dr. Louise Brooks is approached by a General, who asks her to translate the sounds the aliens are making.  She can’t and explains to the General that if he wants her to translate, she needs to be there.  He threatens to speak with another expert, and she says sure, but before you commit to him, ask him what the Sanskrit word for war is, and what it means.  When he returns the General says that the other linguist said the word means “A disagreement.  What do you say it means?”

“A desire for more cows.”

But few words as descriptors of a concept get us in quite as much trouble as the word God.

“When somebody says to me, “I don’t believe in God,” my first response is, “Tell me about the God you don’t believe in.” Almost always, it’s the God of supernatural theism.”

Marcus J. Borg, Jesus: Uncovering the Life, Teachings, and Relevance of a Religious Revolutionary

I believe that when most of us think about God, still, somewhere, maybe way down buried deep, we still have that childhood image of that old white guy, on a cloud, who somehow decides what will happen, and when, and where, and to whom.  We pray, believing that God will answer our prayers.  Or we don’t pray, believing that nothing so silly could possibly happen, so why bother?

This week, the painful travesty that is the current administration continued. This president lives in a world of “Alt Facts,” something that made more sense when I watched an episode of “This week tonight with John Oliver,” that detailed how Trump is getting his information not from intelligence briefings, but from right wing cable news sources.  He is stating made up statistics as if they were facts, and, because he’s speaking loudly, some people are believing him.  If you say something loudly enough, and enough times, someone will believe you—especially if it is saying something that enforces your own world-view.

In the past week, he has announced, via Twitter, that Transgender folks will no longer be able to serve in the military, because of “disruption and medical costs.”  It should be noted, that the best estimate of Transgender medical costs are pretty infinitesimal.  No one knows exactly how many Transgender people currently serve in the military, let alone what their medical costs are, but Pundit-fact, a fact checking organization agrees with the statement that the best guess for Transgender health care is less than the cost of erectile disfunction drugs for active duty personnel.  They also note that it is apt to be less than the President has currently cost the Government on trips to Mar-Lago, and that it is certainly less than 1% of what the military spends on Military Bands… http://www.politifact.com/punditfact/article/2017/jul/27/florida-trips-viagra-pills-twitter-claims-plenty-c/

So why am I bringing up politics in the middle of a sermon on God?

Because in both cases, we’ve ceded power to the people who talk the loudest—even when they’re wrong.

We’re still fighting for justice on the political front.  And our efforts have, so far, managed to save 20 million folks from losing their health insurance.

But I’m afraid that for many people, we’ve let those who talk the loudest about God make the rules, and we’ve just taken our toys and gone home.  My friends, they do not speak for all of organized religion!

And I know that we’re a Unitarian Universalist congregation, which means that you get to make your own decisions on spiritual matters.  You get to decide what spiritual practices you follow.  You get to decide what you believe about God, and whether or not you believe there is one.  There isn’t a right answer to that question.

But, darn it.  Let’s know what it is we’re believing in or not.  Let’s come up with a definition and a language that actually means what it was meant to.

Because over 2000 years ago, Hebrew people wrote the bible, in a variety of languages.  And over time, those words have been translated.  They have gone through another 2000 years of domination systems.  They have been translated by people in power, who had very little interest in giving up the power they had.

And I’m frustrated, because we took a religion, namely Christianity, that focused on the embodiment of God, in the person of Jesus, who spent his life fighting against domination systems, preaching that men and women, slave and free, peasant or king were all equal in the sight of God.  Preaching that the meek would inherit the earth.  That the kingdom of God was one of justice and equality, and that our job as human beings here on earth was to bring about that kingdom—not in heaven, but here on earth.

And I’m frustrated because somehow, the people who talk the loudest, have somehow made us believe that God gives a rip about who you sleep with or what bathroom a kid uses or whether or not America is the greatest country on earth.

I’m angry that we have taken one of the most powerful forces for justice and the social good in our world—religious faith—and somehow ceded it to a group of people who would lock up Jesus as a brown-skinned, troublemaking, illegal immigrant.

Course he wouldn’t be surprised, that’s what happened the first time around.

And I’m angry that we’re so worked up about language that we worry more about the word God that what it is that word represents.

Marcus Borg, a progressive theologian from Oregon wrote in his book, The God We Never Knew: Beyond Dogmatic Religion to a More Contemporary Faith of Jesus as the embodiment of God, and of God as a rejection of the domination systems of his culture.

“Jesus rejected the sharp social boundaries of the established social order and challenged the institutions that legitimated it. In his teaching, he subverted distinctions between righteous and sinner, rich and poor, men and women, Pharisee and outcasts. In his healings and behavior, he crossed social boundaries of purity, gender, and class. In his meal practice, central to what he was about, he embodied a boundary-subverting inclusiveness.

In his itinerancy he rejected the notion of a brokered kingdom of God and enacted the immediacy of access to God apart from institutional mediation.”

What would it look like if we didn’t see God as a white guy on a cloud controlling the outcome of a football game, and instead saw God as the idealization of a world that truly valued the inherent worth and dignity of every person?  What if we used the word God to describe what would really happen when the world practiced justice, equity and compassion?

What would happen if, instead of rejecting the premise of God because so many have used that name as a threat against anyone different—instead we decided that God was the word for that world we dream of—that one of justice and mercy and love?

What would happen if, instead of assuming God somehow controls the outcome, we decided God is the outcome if we manage to throw off this set of domination systems?

What would happen if, in the theology of Carter Heyward, we decided that making love, befriending, and making justice is our act of making God incarnate in the world? https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Carter_Heyward 2/24/17

Carter Heyward is a lesbian feminist Episcopal Priest.  She was one of the Philadelphia Eleven–  Eleven women ordained as priests in 1974, in an unauthorized act that forced the hand of the Episcopal Church, who began ordaining women officially in 1975—and who, it may be noted, elected a woman to the highest office in the church several years ago, a feat Unitarian Universalism managed to do in June.

I remember as a student at Lewis and Clark in the late 80’s reading a chapter in her book “Our Passion for Justice: Images of Power, Sexuality and Liberation”  There was a chapter called Sexuality, Love and Justice which we read in a religion class I took, and I swear—in that pre-internet era, I wanted to copy it off and put it under the windshield wipers of cars in the Fred Meyer parking lot—I wanted to get it out in the world that badly.

Because she had this radical and amazing new image of God that she presented.  And I was struggling to find myself a religious tradition that fit.  I’d grown up pretty mainline protestant, but then had spent two years babysitting at an Assemblies of God church, and attending that church when there weren’t any kids, which was pretty often at the evening service.

But after a guest preacher said, “And I think God would just say THAT to all those women’s libbers,” and I realized that I was definitely one of those “women’s libbers”…  and it’s amazing isn’t it, how one line can change your whole life?

And I’m as guilty as the rest of you at letting those who talk the loudest define the terms.

But Carter Heyward talked about justice in the context of love.  And even more amazing, she talked about sexuality—and homosexuality–as being something holy—something that co-created justice, in the context of a healthy, loving relationship.  She wrote of God as a verb—not as some white guy in the sky, but as something we created.  “When we love, we god,” she wrote, “and I’m using god purposefully as a verb.”  And so in this context, she wrote:

“Love, like truth and beauty, is concrete.  Love is not fundamentally a sweet feeling; not, at heart, a matter of sentiment, attachment, or being ‘drawn toward.’  Love is active, effective, a matter of making reciprocal and mutually beneficial relation with one’s friends and enemies. 

Love creates righteousness, or justice, here on earth.  To make love is to make justice.  As advocates and activists for justice know, loving involves struggle, resistance, risk.  People working today on behalf of women, blacks, lesbians and gay men, the aging, the poor in this country and elsewhere know that making justice is not a warm, fuzzy experience.  I think also that sexual lovers and good friends know that the most compelling relationships demand hard work, patience, and a willingness to endure tensions and

anxiety in creating mutually empowering bonds.” 

For this reason loving involves commitment.  We are not automatic lovers of self, others, world, or God.  Love does not just happen… Love is a choice—not simply, or necessarily a rational choice, but rather a willingness to be present to others without pretense or guile.  Love is a conversion to humanity—a willingness to participate with others in the healing of a broken world and broken lives.”  (Carter Heyward:  Passion for Justice)

Marcus Borg and I share a Pantheistic version of God, as a spirit that infuses everything in the world.  Carter Heyward and I share a vision of God as a spirit of justice co-created in the world between people.  Fred Rogers says that if you want to find God, look for the helpers.  All of these people are what you might call professional Christians.  None of them believe that God is some white guy sitting on a cloud deciding who lives, who dies, and who wins the football game.

What if, instead of ceding the word God to those who talk about her the loudest—instead we reclaim God as a being co-created by all of us looking to transform a broken world into a kingdom of justice and mercy and love?  What happens if we hold a more expansive world-view?

What would happen if, instead of fleeing the word, because we were wounded at some point by those who used it as a symbol of the domination systems it actually is designed to overthrow, we used it as a way of making common cause with other folks who are working to feed the hungry, shelter the homeless, and welcome the stranger?

In response to a question about how UU’s could be more effective in our justice work, UUA Presidential Candidate Rev. Jeanne Pupke, noted during a debate that Unitarian Universalists make up .004% of the population.  We have influence beyond our numbers, sure, but we also are too small to do much alone.  “We need to partner with Catholics on Immigration issues.  With Baptists on Black Lives Matter.  With Methodists on Environmental issues.”

So why do I care about what we think about when we think about God?

Because if we aren’t reactive about the words our interfaith partners use, I believe we will be more effective working together.  If we can find a meaning of God that works for us, that allows us to redefine and reclaim the word, we can stop having fake fights and start the real work of creating, here on earth, the world Jesus spoke of, and Gandhi spoke of, and Mohammed spoke of–and a world Unitarian Universalists believe in—an end to domination systems, to unjust income inequality, hunger and homelessness, and to the presence of a world of compassion, love and justice.

Holy one.  Mystery.  God.  That which moves in and among us.

Love.  Just Love.

That’s a God I can believe in. May it be so. Blessed be, and Amen.

Will you pray with me?

God of many names and no name.

Let us expand our understandings—of people, of the world, of unimaginable ideas to big for our own brains to comprehend.  Let us look for the places we agree with others trying to do good in the world, rather than getting stuck on terminology.  Let us feel free to not listen to those talking the loudest, but to listen to the still small voice within so many of us longing for a world that is more fair, more just, more compassionate.  Whether we’re speaking in Urdu or Spanish or Mandarin, let us find the meaning within the words.  May it be so.  Blessed be, and Amen.