The Reverend Mark DeWolfe Sermon
May 24, 1987
There is a fallacy abroad among Unitarian Universalists that you must either be a humanist or a theist, but you cannot be both. Just as the chorus from Iolanthe goes, one is born “either a little Liberal, or a little Conservative, ” we have a myth among us that Unitarian Universalists are either liberal Christians, theists or humanists. Hogwash.
Like Jack Mendelsohn in the reading I chose for this morning, I affirm al l the humanist affirmations. They are eminently sensible, Its insistence on the importance of the human realm as the place where religion should operate ; on what humans can know to be of value and the moral urgency of human action (not divine propitiation) make me an avid humanist. That Jerry Falwell has chosen humanism to be his enemy only adds glamour to the humanist cause. So I endeavour to be a valiant knight in the battle for religious humanism. But what I am not is an atheist.
Historically, religious humanism arose in reaction to the excesses of theistic orientation: to fruit less attempts to prove philosophically God’ s existence; to fruit less efforts to improve the condition of the world through propitiatory prayer ; to the misuse of the name and idea of God for the domination of one people by another. The abuses of theism led to a wise response, the birth of religious humanism. Yet humanism too has its abuses, and while I defend it before Falwell with you I want to explain that while I am a humanist I remain a theist, too; and that find no contradiction in the position.
My religious upbringing – I am that rarity, a born-and-bred Unitarian Universalist – trained me to be spiritually independent. Ideas about human nature, the world and ultimate reality were taught to me not as something had to believe but as something other people believed and about which I should make up my own mind. Those of you who were raised with definite, required beliefs about God and human nature may find it hard to understand the radical freedom a Unitarian Universalist religious education provides. I never had any ownership in the image of God as bull-riding thunderclap, Bedouin patriarch, or cosmic moral accountant. There were no ideas to reject, only ideas to entertain. I entertained few of those for very long.
Through my teenage years [ was an agnostic where the question of God was concerned. The existence of God was neither logical provable, nor universally experienced. So why engage in questions about which one might as likely be right as wrong? There were more important things to do than worship a God who was as likely to be not there at al l as there in the first place. there were a God worthy of the name, she would not be disappointed If we puny humans instead of bowing and scraping to her engaged in acts of justice and peace-making ( I was after all , a teenager in the activist 1960’s) . So, don’ t bother me with questions of God; I ‘ m too busy doing God’ s work.
Sometime in my late teens, though, my perspective began to change. I’m not certain just how it happened. I read R. W. Emerson’ s essay, The Oversoul, and that may have been an influence. I took more time for philosophical questions, some of them provoked by the difficulties coming to al l that social change. What I remember quite clearly is this: one day I went to my father, who I thought at the time was a thorough-going Unitarian Universalist atheistic humanist and announced my new self-concept as a theist. I probably expected (my memory is foggy in this regard) that this would mark my generation off from his. I said, “Dad, I’ve decided that I ‘ m a theist, ” He asked why. I replied, because when I look at the universe, I can’ t believe that it has no purpose. I am sure that al l this is here for a reason. I don’ t presume to know what it is, but I’m sure it’s there. And once you presume that existence has a purpose, you’ re logically in the realm of theism. So while I don’t know what God is, I’m sure more of a theist than anything else. ”
What happened in that moment was the beginning of a new spiritual journey for me. First of all, I had identified myself as a mystic. Mystics, strictly speaking, are not people who go into trances or engage in practices of extreme asceticism (though some do) . Mystics seek for God for what is holy, for what is ultimately real in their own experience. Not for them the dry logic of academic theology, nor the inherited understandings of ancient catechisms. Their theology is an expression of their experience, of the outer world and of the inner.
Unitarian Universalism has long had a dual strand in its history. The British Unitarian historian W. G. Tarrant names these as a rational and a mystical strand. On the one hand, we claim that religion should not be contrary to reason, and that reason is a useful tool in understanding religious questions. The second strand is the mystical one: an affirmation that religion should not be contrary to experience, and that our experience of the world should inform our theological visions. In my own reading of our history, we alternate emphases with each generation, more or less; in some generations, the rational approach takes the upper hand, in the next, the mystical. Always our mysticism is a rational one; we never turn off our thinking. Always our rational ism is aimed at understanding our experience. The two approaches are interdependent. A rational ism without a mysticism is dry; a mysticism without a rational ism is sloppy.
So as a mystic by nature, I have come to embrace a belief in God. Yet it is not the God others have been taught to believe in. I cannot believe that God controls everything that happens in the world; neither do I believe God bears responsibility for the horrors human beings inflict on the world My God is not that kind of omnipotent. My world still runs on natural laws; see no point in praying to be relieved from them and their accidents. God cannot, and does not, play favourites on the basis of prayer. So what is my God good for?
At a deep, intuitive level I experience the world as a mystery with an unknowable purpose. Since my childhood, I have stood in awe of the majesty of the universe, the complexity of human cultures and human beings. Something inside me wishes to address that mystery, to speak to it, to wrestle with it, to love it. Perhaps most of all, to love it. To love the mystery behind the existence of galaxies of stars, species of animals, billions of women, men and children. As my late adolescent conclusion stated, I repeat, that essentially I found myself in the realm of theism.
Our English language has lost one of its insights. The word “belief”, unlike its counterparts in other languages, has a meaning we have forgotten. “Belief” stems from the word, “beloved; ” what you believe in is not some abstract idea to which you ascribe rational credibility; it instead something you have chosen to love. When in the musical How To Succeed In Business Without Really Trying Rosemary sings to J. Pierpont the love song, n I Believe In You,n she was onto something more profound than she know. Belief is a matter of what you love.
I am profoundly and deeply in love with the mystery behind existence. You might think a mystery is easier to love than a flesh and blood human being, because it remains mysterious. Anyone who does not think the human beings they have chosen to love have not remained mysterious is in a dead relationship, one which ceased to happen a long time ago. Women, men and children are the greatest mystery I know. They have depths none can plunge without encountering uniqueness, wonder, worlds beyond imagining. To love at al l is fundamentally to love a mystery.
So it is with the mystery of all existence. The further science pushes back the limits of human knowledge, the more majestic, the more awe provoking the universe becomes. Was it more terrifying to think of the stars as lights placed by God in the firmament of heaven or to realize that they are blazing infernos of nuclear energy, that there are more of them than we can count, and that some are worlds themselves, other things that appear like stars are distant galaxies containing billions of stars? The more we know, the smaller we become, the more awesome the universe. The mystery deepens with each approach.
Many who share these feelings of mine would not share my affirmation that one can speak of God when speaking of these feelings. The three- letter “G T‘ word, to them, is too tangled up with anthropomorphic images to be useful. But I think it fair here to speak of God, in part because of those images themselves.
Throughout human history that fragment of human experience we can touch – women and men have created images of gods and goddesses to express their awe before that mystery. The images have evolved from beast forms through human ones, to spiritual and philosophical entities removed from physical matter. Always the image changes, as human culture changes ; yet we recognize a quality those images have in common and so denote them by the name, “gods. ”
Why should this evolution stop with the last generation, the one which rejected the disconnected spirit idea of god? Does rejecting the one idea of god mean the symbol has no use? The ancient Romans called the Christians among them atheists because they did not bow down to Roman gods. Is it accurate to call the mothers and fathers of the church atheist because their god was different?
When I speak I use old symbols because their meanings are not fixed in stone and never were; they have evolved up until now and they will continue to evolve through generations. Generations reclaim old ideas, tossed aside on the roadway by their parents, and infuse them with new qualities, new insights and new loves. How else does human culture evolve? If you reject an old symbol because it must always mean only one thing, the meaning it held for your parents’ generation, then you are rejecting the different meaning it must have had for your grandparents, a meaning you might (or might not) share. Or you might find that an insight from ages long ago has a new utility, not exactly what it used to be, but useful for you here and now. The reclaiming of Goddess imagery by feminist theologians is critical for our time, not because the insights of the ancients fit today (they don’ t) , but because our age has need of new images, female images, of power, integrity and holiness. So why not speak of Goddess?
Reinterpreting ancient symbols means that one must speak with clearness about what one means when one says them. Even so, such a speaker will be rejected by those who think she is playing with language unfairly. Always there will be those who prefer words to mean one thing and one thing only, and resist any effort to unlock new or old or deeper or higher meanings for symbols which offend them. So if I say I am a theist then I must be very careful to be clear about what I mean.
I think the R G” word – god is useful to describe the unfathomable mystery I know is there, in the realm of purposefulness. It is useful for describing an adequate object of my belief my heart-felt love and one which keeps perspective on the limits of human knowledge and power. “God” is a useful word because it gives me an unnameable name for the mystery who both transcends my world and is found in the midst of it, who is greater than myself but who is found at the bottom of the well of my being, the spring out of which my life’ s water swells. God is a useful term because it is poetry, metaphor, for something I experience and yet cannot in the most limited sense know. I can only love it.
“God” is a useful word to have around because sometimes we want to address the mystery a word or two of our personal concern. Yes, I confess, sometimes, I talk to God. Unlike Oral Roberts, I’m never certain what God is saying to me! But I do talk to God. I pray. There are times when the most awful things happen, and I must turn to God and say, “Is this any way to run a universe?” More often there are times when I am so struck by the graciousness of existence that I turn my attention to God and say, “Thank you. Thank you for the light on Lake Ontario at sunset, the pinks and aquas, for the blazing red of downtown’s reflection; thank you for the daffodils in the garden and the peonies on the coffee table; and thank you for the children, the men and the women who make up this earth’s people, the ones I love and the ones who love me. Thank you for the myriad ways of being human; we have not yet begun to understand them all; nor have we plunged the depths of possibilities in our human estate. Thank you, God, for the possibilities of creativity and the freedom to grow. ”
Yes, I confess that this is blatant anthropomorphism. It assumes that my beloved mystery can hear me and in humility I confess that I don’ t know that God can’ t hear me. I don’ t know that God can, either. But do know that learning to worship this way has made a big difference in me. In the strength I feel to go on with every day in the face of difficulty. In the beauty of the world I see around me and the beauty in myself am learning to honour. Anthropomorphism may be philosophically unsound, but it is spiritually sound, provided you don’ t get carried away with it. I do not intend to get carried away with it. I don’ t expect this congregation will ever let me get carried away with it.
If the subtitle of this sermon were, “Why I am a theist, ” I would best summarize it this way: I am theist because I want to use a religious language which al lows me to express why I love the world and love life, to express my outrage at its injustices, my gratitude for its graces. [ do not expect to convert anyone to my position by this reasoning; this sermon is too interior for that. But I want you to know the way my spirit leans, that you may consider my experience and compare it with your own, consider my choices and compare them with your own.
Finally, I am a theist because the world is not yet finished. New things are happening every time I look around; new peoples emerge to question our culture ; new issues arise to question our morals ; new buds emerge on old trees to remind us that life is not finished in this universe. One leaf falls, but the business of treeing is eternal. The human world and in fact the entire universe continue to evolve. I am a theist so I can talk about and to that evolution. And I can use the language of theism to express my own hope. God is unfinished; creation is unfinished; I am unfinished. Praises be to the unfolding mystery.
– -Rev. Mark Mosher DeWolfe