Rev. John P.Gaffney
Using the word God is uncomfortable for many of us Unitarian Universalists. We find the concept of God ambiguous, confusing, and overloaded with traits which we reject. For many years the word God was not heard in UU churches and some stillcringe when they hear it today in one of our Services. I find that I seldom use the word God since it means so many different things to people. Yet the concept of God is at the center of every major religion, especially those in the Western world. I think we need to explore the notion of God now and again to better articulate what we think and to listen to what others think, aboutGod. I will try to do this today, giving my personal thoughts about God, drawing upon other UUs, and especially asking you what you think about God.
One of my first sermons here at the Fellowship was entitled, "Another look at God". I began that sermon with a story which I would like to repeat today. Despite its humor, there is some deep definitive theology here. See if you can find it.
The story goes like this. Back in the '60's there was a very controversial Time magazine cover with a black background and words in white that said "Is God Dead?" These were the days when people were rejecting organized religion. Existentialism was very influential and people were more concerned with "the moment", how they could live this day authentically and they were not concerned with speculation about a mysterious deity. Also the German theologians, who always seem most influential in theology, were devastated with the horrors of the holocaust, and many of them said if there were a God all-good and all-powerful, He would not have permitted such an abomination. Many said, in those days of the '60's, that we were now in a post-Christian era. I think this is still true today where there is a growing number of unchurched people who are looking for meaning and peace of soul now.
People reacted strongly to this Time magazine cover and a bumper-sticker war began . One bumper sticker said "God is dead." Another bumper sticker said, "Your God may be dead but my God is alive." Still another said "God is alive and well and living in San Francisco." I had a particular favorite, especially since I know what it's like having a car in Manhattan. This bumper sticker said, "God is not dead, He's looking for a parking spot."
Yes, there are many views of who God is, where He is, and what he does. This is also true of UUs. UUs were recently surveyed on the question of their belief in God. It was a detailed questionnaire with multiple choices Here were the results:
-10% believed in a traditional supernatural deityHow would I and how would you answer this questionnaire?
- 50% believed in God who dwells within the natural and human world, a naturalistic god
- 30% were humanists, agnostics, and atheists
- 10% had no opinion
I thought that I would describe how my thought has developed on this subject. Growing up,there is no doubt that I held the traditional belief in God --an actual person with intellect and will who knew us personally and loved us and will judge us and intervene in our lives if we pray hard enough. Miracles were certainly possible. These many decades later I still remember the first two questions in the catechism. "Who made us?" "God made us." "Why did God make us?" "He made us to know, love, and serve Him in this life and to be happy with Him in the next." This was who God was and this is what God wanted. When I was young I never questioned this. Who was I to question these truths which were revealed by God and handed down through many generations and taught by people far more brilliant than me? To tamper with these doctrines would lead to an eternity in hell's fire. Besides these beliefs gave a structure and security to my life. But something happened along the way and I'm not sure exactly when. It probably was like a slow erosion. There always was within me an attraction to common sense and this with an ever-curious mind led to the change. As I grew older I began to realize that I didn't deny those basic truths but they were no longer so central or so dominant in my life. They were moving more toward the background. As I went through the seminary and into the years as a priest, I began to say that I had put those notions of God, Incarnation, Resurrection, and the miracles onto the "back burner." They were there and perhaps even simmering, but I was more focused on, interested in, what was going on today, and how people interacted with each other and how there could be more justice and kindness in the world.
I didn't realize how far my thinking had gone until one day in Pompton Lakes, my eighth year in the priesthood, an irate lawyer, long time member of the parish, and good friends with the bishop came storming into the rectory. He pointed his finger at me and with angry words he said, "Father John, I've listened to you preach for three years and you have never once mentioned that Jesus was God." I was surprised at this accusation because I had thought that I was preaching good, Catholic doctrine. Then it dawned on me. I said to the lawyer, "It's not important to say that Jesus is God." Before I could finish my thought, he stormed out of the rectory, reported me to the Bishop, and it was the beginning of the end of my days in the priesthood. What I wanted to say to the lawyer was that even if Jesus is God, the only thing we can connect with is his human nature. Jesus laughed, he cried, he got tired, he got discouraged. We have done those things and they resonate in our lives. Yes, God was on the back burner and that day I think he dropped off the burner. I realized that I wasn't interested in the divinity of Jesus. Even though I didn't leave the priesthood for several more months, I look back now and say, "I was a Unitarian Universalist then."
Many months later I went to Manhattan to get lost, to establish a new identity. I didn't know a single person in that city of millions. As I walked up Third Avenue I realized how anti-organizational and anti-clerical I was, and I'm happy to report, I still am today. Here I looked back on fifteen years in the monastery and nine years as a priest and from that day I haven't given a single thought to a personal God and what He had done or would do. I haven't given a thought to the afterlife, whether there is a heaven or a hell. I'm simply not interested in that. My thirty years of speculation in that area are over. I am now where Thomas Jefferson, who claimed to be a Unitarian, was when he said, "I prefer to spend my times on things I know and not on things I can't know." I have turned a hundred and eighty degrees.
When people ask me, "Do you believe in God" I look them right in the
eye and say, "God is very mysterious, isn't he --eternal, omnipotent, omniscient?"
I continue, "I prefer to see the divine, or the sacred, or the precious
in people and in nature." My spirituality is a search to uncover the mysteries
in some small way. This is my search for God or the Divine but I prefer
to call it a search for the sacred and the precious. I sense this sacredness
when I feel connected to people and to nature. It is sacred to me, or you
might call it divine, when I feel nurtured and loved by people and nature,
which I usually do in my better moments. Reflection or meditation helps
this process and I would be much further along the way if I were more faithful
to this discipline. Every moment is a sacred moment or an encounter with
God, if you will, when we are truly engaged, communicating with another
person, or entranced, or mesmerized or simply drinking in the beauty of
a sunset, or a rugged rock formation, or a fresh body of water. Is there
more to the notion of God? There isn't for me, at least up to this moment.
I can't think of anything more sacred than being deeply and intimately
connected with other people and other things--and not only with those I
can physically see, but even with those I have known and who have passed
away and vistas that were from another day.I hope that my children and
everyone I have met, be it oh so casually, will feel connected with me
long after I have gone. This is more divine and sacred
to me than a triune God.
Listen to this English proverb which seems to say what I have been struggling to say. "God is where He was." The footprint of God is everywhere. This is a poetic way of saying that the divine, the sacred, lingers at every moment in every person and in every thing. "God is where He was." Some may not be satisfied with this rather nebulous notion of the divine. Perhaps because we humans want something more concrete, more definite, we have created a God whose many attributes mirror our own best qualities. Perhaps the darkness and stillness is too much for us. The deeply Christian philosopher, Pascal, speaks for many when he laments, "The eternal silence of the infinite frightens me." We want to hear what God is like and preachers are all too ready to fill in the details with total confidence on a Sunday morning. People want to pray to a God who will be on their side in a struggle. Heywood Broun, the renowned sportswriter remarked: "God, as some cynic has said, is always on the side which has the best football coach." What strange ways we can picture this God and what tasks we want him to perform. How many pray each day for some miracle in their lives. Albert Einstein is more on the mark when he says that "God is a scientist, not a magician."
There are so many ways to look at God as we heard earlier in the children's story, "Hide and Seek With God." Despite how I describe the divine and the sacred above, I have a prayer service every Thursday at the Larkin Chase Nursing Home. There we sing those fundamentalist and imagery-rich hymns such as "What a Friend We have in Jesus" and "How Great Thou Art" and "In the Sweet Bye and Bye." They connect these aged people of another era with the sacred and as I sing with them, I feel only the poetry of the words, but in that room I think we all touch the divine.
Unitarian Universalism is a large tent. Some of you may believe in a
very personal God, some may be atheists, agnostics or humanists. We each
are challenged to search and to find the divine. Where have you found the
sacred? In your sharing you can enrich us.