(c) Doug Slagle, Minister to the Gathering at Northern Hills, All Rights Reserved
My message series this month explores the idea of “Who or What is God?” Since some of you know I am NOT a theist, it might seem odd that I consider such a theme. If you note the way I’ve written the title of this series, however, I do so with ‘God’ in quotation marks. My use of the word is not intended to connote its traditional definition. I use the word very loosely and only so that I can express concepts of God and not its literal meaning.
I also use the feminine pronoun to refer to God. That does not mean I believe God is a gender, much less a person. I use the feminine to indicate that I believe if God was like a human, she would be a she. I also purposefully want to renounce historic notions of paternalism and male domination connected with God.
What is important, however, is that I believe people can come together under the concept that God is a force of love and unity – and thereby reject the standard concept of God which is based on fear. Contrary to traditional notions of God, she is not judgmental. We have no reason to fear her. Indeed, my understanding is that she is far more complex than a supernatural Being. We can understand her with our minds and be like her by how we act. She is, in essence, a force for good and a part of all nature and science based reason.
That is the focus of my message today. Next week I will assert God is truth. Finally, in two weeks, I’ll claim she is timeless. For me, these messages are my attempt to promote how concepts of God can and should bring people together.
Some of you may remember the film 2001, A Space Odyssey and its opening scenes showing very early humans foraging for berries. They had to compete with wild boars for them.
Eventually, these hominids in the film discover how to attack, kill and eat the boars. They realized large leg bones from other animals could be fashioned into weapons. These weapons enabled humans to reduce competition for berries and eat more meat. It also enabled them to defend against, and attack perceived threats.
The film depicts one early man throw a weaponized bone into the air. We watch as it tumbles in a cloud filled sky. That image immediately cuts to one of a space ship………soaring through interstellar space. We see in two great cinematic moments the evolutionary history of humanity.
What is remarkable is that the early human scene highlights what was the time period when fear combined with religion and began to control human thought. Humans had evolved larger brains due to a high protein, meat based diet which enabled them to mentally be aware of death and to imagine abstract ideas. A large bone, for instance, was abstractly conjured in ancient minds as something to fashion into a weapon. The higher mental ability to think abstractly, and understand threats, these led to the first religion.
Archaeologists have proven that assertion by discovering Neanderthals buried their dead after adorning them with symbolic figurines and beads. This indicates ritualistic behavior and the existence of early religion. There was a purpose to such actions far beyond the mourning of dead. Neanderthals prepared and ritually empowered their deceased for an afterlife existence. That suggests they conceived of a higher power, or God, as a force that made such an afterlife possible.
Even more, believing in an afterlife also indicates they were acutely aware of their own mortality in more than an instinctual way. Animals can sense when they are threatened. But that sense does not suggest, experts say, a deeper awareness that one will cease to exist. Once early humans evolved to become fully aware of death and ceasing to exist, they were frightened. Indeed, death still scares many people. With the understanding of what death means, ancient humans turned to the abstract world to find reassurance. People do not really die, they hoped. They move on to another form of existence. The ancients could not observe that existence, but the idea of it soothed them, and they so they believed or hoped in an afterlife. God and religion were thus created as a result of fear.
I’ve discussed here before the beginnings of my spirituality. I was first drawn to religion and Christianity many years ago because of its promise for redemption. At that time, I hated that I had gay attractions. I was ashamed of my supposedly sinful nature. I was afraid of the supernatural concept of God judging me and sending me to hell. I began attending church and later got so involved that I attended Seminary and became a minister.
There is a church sign I saw recently that that says “God answers knee mail.” I remember being on my knees a lot praying God would make me “normal.” It eventually dawned on me, however, that God could not change me because my concept of God, at the time, does not exist.
What I also realized was that my fears, about how I would be judged, had led me to religion. Later, I understood most religious impulses are based on anxieties similar to mine – fears of death, of eternal judgement, hell, or simply nothingness. Fears motivate many religious ideas about God – that one must win a supernatural Being’s favor in order to enjoy a happy and eternal afterlife. Sadly, I believe, religions often foster even more fear. Religions fear those who do not think or believe like them. They stereotype, condemn and oppress others for their differences. Such fear initiated Jewish conquest of ancient pagans, Roman attacks on Christians, Christians fighting Muslims during the crusades, and today’s discriminations against Jews and Muslims. The world is divided based largely on fear – and how God is defined.
What was true for early humans and for modern religions is that fear is not conducive to unity. It’s exclusive and judgmental. Fear is the opposite of love and unity which, as I say, ought to define our understanding of God.
Baruch Spinoza, of whom I often refer, was the philosophical father of this kind of a unifying God awareness. He was, in his 1677 book Ethics, the first to articulate the idea that God and science work together. God exists in all of nature and the forces that control it. For Spinoza, God, and nature are almost interchangeable. They are essentially united.
What we see all around us, Spinoza believed, – in our bodies, in oceans, plants, animals and the cosmos – are things of beauty. They are beautiful in their complexity and in the ways they work and came to exist. We see in nature, therefore, the invisible hand of God-like creative forces. But we know, thanks to reason based science, that those forces are physical laws such as thermodynamics, entropy, evolution, mathematics and biology. Such observable and provable principles are not supernatural. There is no magic in them. There is instead a logical cause and effect to them.
Importantly, these forces and natural laws are not fearful things. Death is part of nature as all things eventually decay and become something else. But that is not something to dread. I am made up of the stuff of stardust and will one day return to it. So will you. That is an amazing and wonderful truth. Accepting this leads us to reassurance, celebration and love for all creation. It also unites us.
As I said earlier, fear is the opposite of love. Fear pits one person or one group against another. Love, on the other hand, refuses to have that mindset. And Spinoza’s thoughts about nature were that it is a good and creative thing. It is not selfish or vengeful – wanting to exclude or condemn for petty flaws. Spinoza’s concept of God is that she is expansive, generous, and part of everything. Such a God concept understands the processes of nature and celebrates them. Seeing God and nature as interchangeable allows people to embrace charity, gentleness, humility and peace. Science based forces thus share what most religions describe as a God attribute. God is Truth. And Truth can never be divisive, scary or hateful.
That idea was the foundation of Unitarianism. Ralph Waldo Emerson, from whom Unitarianism derives many of its ideas, said this, “Within man is the soul of the whole; the wise silence; the universal beauty, to which every part and particle is equally related, the eternal ONE.”
Native American beliefs say God is the Great Spirit or simply – the One. They also believe in a circle of life type of God – that what we are today will be something else in the future. The molecules that course through our bodies at this very moment are the same as those found in all of nature. Everything is related – everything is ONE.
Hindu sacred writings, the Upanishads, offer similar concepts. They write, “Brahmin, or God, is without parts or attributes…it is One without a second.” For Hindus, Brahman is the whole of reality and it is definitely not an anthropomorphic, personal Being.
Many Jews likewise sees a natural unity to the concept of God. Hasidic and Kaballah Jews refer to God as Ein Sof – the One, a force that is immanent and a part of everything.
Open theology in Christianity explores that thinking as well. God, according to open theology, is integrated into creation. God is the sum of all truth. God is not apart from sciences like evolution and astrophysics.
Sufi Islam is also a reconciliation between fundamentalism and the reality of science. God, for Sufism, is a force that energizes and defines the universe. God is not a Being but a unifying idea.
Finally, Buddhism perhaps best expresses this concept of God. Even though Buddhism has no equivalent word for God, some say it is the Buddhist nirvana. To reach nirvana, a perfect state of being, people must seek awareness of all that is real. In that sense, reason and logic work in tandem with attitudes of peace and kindness. When these are realized, something which only a few attain, one reaches a state of nirvana or what could be called God. Many Buddhists refer to this as discovering All……..and becoming One.
What I found, after my disillusionment with religion, was a kind of spiritual atheism. God is not a theistic Being but she is nevertheless real in the sense that I see an interconnection between all people and, indeed, all nature.
It’s a well used phrase but one that accurately describes the oneness that Unitarian Universalists believe – there are many many paths, but one Truth. This means people do not each seek a God concept in the same way, but they seek the same thing. For our beliefs as UU’s, we therefore affirm the wisdom of science and the primacy of Golden Rule morality. God is the totality of reason and the completion of love and service to others.
Moving away from an abstract concept of God into one that is rooted in the natural world, we find the peace we all seek. This is a God concept that quotes our minds and brings us together instead of dividing us with fear. Whether we call her Ein Sof, Brahmin, Great Spirit, All in One, or nirvana, God is a unifier. For me, God is everything that informs ours minds and our hearts with reason and goodness.