What’s Wrong with God?
In my opening words I told you about bringing my dad to a UUCM service, and his amazement that we never mentioned God.
During that service I had a deeply moving journey into the sacred. He’d had a different experience. He did not make dispersions, he simply spoke his observation – somehow we had been able to offer a Worship Service without mentioning God. What exactly were we worshiping, and how can you worship without speaking the name?
On the flip side when I serve as your Worship Associate, I find myself feeling some trepidation if I choose a reading or hymn that includes the word God – like the verses we sang this morning in Morning Has Broken — “sprung in completeness where God’s feet pass.”
We can sing “Spirit of Life come unto me”. We can muse on messages or guidance from the Universe. We can tiptoe into uttering the word “divine” – but seem to get increasingly uncomfortable if we expand it into the word “divinity.
So, what’s wrong with “God”?
Mind you, for me this has nothing to do with the questions of whether or not God exists, and I’m not interested in the misbehavior of a perceived deity that some call “God”.
I’m interested in what some here see as a a taboo or at least a hesitancy against speaking this specific little three-lettered word in our services – g-o-d hmmm
The words Holly Near’s song, I ain’t afraid jump into my head.
I ain’t afraid of your Yahweh
I ain’t afraid of your Allah
I ain’t afraid of your Jesus
I’m afraid of what you do in the name of your God
So much war, so much horror, so much justification of oppression, racism, homophobia, poverty has been done in the name of one god or another – happening today as well as throughout history…
The Hebrew Bible is full of them: Joshua fit the battle of Jerico for example. Holy wars were fought to rid the “Holy Land” of Muslim infidels. Wars were and are fought to suppress paganism, they are fought to resolve conflict between denominational rivals, think of Ireland or the Shiites vs the Sunnis.
I ain’t afraid of your churches
I ain’t afraid of your temples
I ain’t afraid of your praying
I’m afraid of what you do in the name of your God
The early religions of our most ancient ancestors were born of their wonderings, which in turn gave birth to creation stories to to make sense of how all this came to be. They conjured up gods and goddesses – and ascribed to them the powers to create, to reward, to punish.
Priests and priestess stepped forward as intermediaries between mortals and these powerful and often vengeful deities. They raised up grand temples and sacrificed the innocent to gain favor and appease the gods.
Could it be we avoid the word “God” because we are rebelling against the way in which “God’s will” has been used to justify vast accumulation of wealth by “his” churches, and “his” chosen ones? – to justify lynchings, burning of crosses? To justify systemic intolerance – consider how state and federal legislators and the President – use their “knowledge of “God’s will” to create laws and policies limiting human rights or prioritizing “religious freedom” over the right to access needed health care when the life styles of those in need conflict with the religious beliefs of the health care providers.
Could it be that we shutter at using the word ‘God’ because we are worried we will be mistaken for people that use religious freedom as a discriminatory sword?
In 2005 the Sacramento Business Journal chose to honor my work for children in foster care at their annual Women Who Mean Business luncheon. The five honorees were to share the secrets of our success in response to questions from a moderator. Just before our lunch was served the moderator came to the table of each us and let us know the first question she would ask– “please describe yourself in one sentence.”
So much for my appetite! I looked around my table at the people I had invited to support me. In a mild panic I pleaded “help!” My dear friend, and mentor, an attorney, looked at me kindly and confidently. “you are a woman who is divinely blessed.” So simple, so absolutely true, for he and I often shared how my ability to do what so many thought impossible for children waiting in foster care, was because of my ability to download from some source beyond my comprehension, resources that opened the doors to power, that changed beliefs, that toppled barriers for the children I care so much about.
“Yes,” I told my tablemates, “I am a woman who is divinely blessed with gifts and talents to make a difference in the lives of children.” Sitting next to me was someone I am close to. He looked horrified. “What if they think you are….” What? A right wing extremest, or a new age weirdo, or “heaven knows what?
“What if they do,” I responded, “The way they understand “that which is more than we can comprehend” doesn’t matter to me…. Call it The Big Guy, call it the universe, call it God, we are all drawing on the same source.”
Maybe we shy away from the word and/or concept of God because of the way the holy books, (written of course, by mere mortals ) have been turned into inviolable rules – laws, with threats of eternal damnation for those who break them.
What a powerful way to control the masses … an all-seeing and vengeful god from which no sinful act or thought can be hidden. All the more convenient when the sinner could increase
the wealth of the church by purchasing indulgences to buy off years in purgatory.
Once again Holly Near sings
I ain’t afraid of your Bible
I ain’t afraid of your Torah
I ain’t afraid of your Koran
Watch out for the threats of purgatory
But then again, more I think about it, the more I wonder how much what seems like an aversion to the word God, comes from the wounds so many of us carry, including myself, from growing up in a theology that told us we were born sinners, unworthy of God’s (or anyone else’s) love and unless we repented our sins and accepted Jesus as our Lord and Savior. By no other route could we escape the inevitability of burning for eternity in the fires of hell.
In churches everywhere in our nation the messengers of that vengeful god are raining down trauma with those repeated messages: we were defective before we were born, that our very thoughts prove how unworthy we are by nature.
This may well be the strongest reason some of us recoil from the use of the word God. How many of us have a personal Pandora’s Box where we unconsciously tuck away traumatic experiences too toxic to hold in the light, and the negative stories of who we are and what has happened to us a result. These stories can be really destructive. They trap us. No wonder we want to lock them away.
Certainly our Pandora’s Boxes, and all our defenses, are important. They help protect us. They wall us off from the recurring, controlling, scolding, messages that have been used against us.
They also wall us off from other people, from nature, and, when they have been hurled at us in the name of God, they can wall us off from a level of consciousness that many experience as “larger than what is contained by your skin”, to quote Michael Pollan.
Perhaps the word ‘God’ has an uncanny way of finding those hidden triggers inside us that open that Pandora’s Box of shame and anger – and we’d so much rather keep that box tightly closed.
Reflection Part 2
Eckhart Tolle, in “The Power of Now” shares his belief, that in essence, there is and always has been, only one spiritual teaching, although it comes in many forms. “and some”, he says “such as ancient religions, have become so overlaid with extraneous matter that their spiritual essence has become almost hidden.” He explains that his source of wisdom is not external, but from “the one true Source within – a place within us that we already know, and “where truth is recognized when it is heard”. Take a moment to consider where your source of wisdom dwells.
What I really want to do today is enlist your help to explore ways we can communicate with each other about how we each experience the deeper meaning and transformative power of whatever you want to call that which is beyond our capacity to understand.
– the ability to feel awe, not just “oh isn’t that pretty”, but “breath-taking, beyond words, that full – beyond physical experience of awe that takes us into an unexplainable oneness.
– the sense of wonder so strong that we refer to it in our mission statement.
– the many ways we live through experiences that feel transcendent .
Philosopher William James was not afraid to call the question: He said the mystical experience is ineffable,” yet as Michael Pollan says, “we try very hard to eff it.”
Some cultures, and subcultures see access to the sacred as the natural state of the human person – a state that is clouded by the incessant chatter of our minds. We are offered many paths to enter this sense of oneness – a richness of meditation techniques – yoga, transcendental meditation, Buddhist meditations, mindfulness meditation, music, chanting, our own monthly singing meditation.
Nature, the river, the night sky,
Ingestion of psychedelic herbs shown to provide a direct, personal, and vivid transcendental entry into an experience of the oneness of all there is.
I find it interesting that the exploding field of neuroscience gives us physical evidence, detected by brain images, that there is a neurobiological home for spirituality.
Rather than merely grounding the basis of spirituality in culture, neuro psychology shows us a universal, cognitive basis for spirituality. There is even growing neurological evidence that early religious practices and expanded consciousness helped shape the very structure of our brains.
Whether the thing that makes an individual feel connected to something greater, involves church, the river, or a stadium full of sports fans, a certain part of the brain activates.
This sense of wonder, of access to the infinite is now beginning to be understood as a normal, though not always realized, human neuro-psychological ability.
And just to keep things balanced, Tony Jack, director of the Brain, Mind, Consciousness lab at Case Western Reserve University explains that analytical thinking , and spiritual, empathic thinking, rely on different neural pathways and processes. Analytical thinking and spiritual empathic thinking… He says that although they can’t happen at the same time in the brain, both modes are necessary, like breathing in and breathing out. “You can’t do both at the same time, but you need both to stay healthy and well,” he says. That stops me in my tracks.
So clearly, there are many, many pathways to having a deeply human spiritual experience, where we can, and often do, enter something that might provide insight or even answers to the BIG questions we, and our ancestors, struggle to comprehend.
Whether we identify as UU humanists, UU theists, UU mystics, UU Pagans, or UU Warrior fans, most of us have had those experiences or seek to have them.
Speaking for myself when I am in such an experience, and also after I’ve left it, I long to communicate it to someone else, — and there are so many of those “someone elses” in this room – to have another, perhaps you, look me in the eye and grok what I have seen.
Am I the only one? But do I have to edit the words come easily to me?
Tolle says ” don’t get stuck on the level of words. A word is no more than a means to an end. It’s an abstraction.” But don’t, he advises, let your aversion to the word cut yourself off from the infinite reality that the word stands for.
As Michael Pollan, in his book How to Change Your Mind, talks about his direct research into the use of psychedelics, he describes the consciousness that beheld his mystical experiences as “not my normal consciousness. It was completely unperturbed. It was dispassionate. It was content as I watched myself dissolve over the landscape. And what I brought back from that experience was that I’m not identical to my ego, that there is another ground on which to plant our feet and that our ego is kind of this character that, you know, is chattering neurotically in our minds.“ But Pollan laments that he sounds “loopy” when he tries to communicate the trancendece of his experience.
Have we allowed the religious purists to usurp the language of the sacred? How do we remove the stranglehold on our spiritual vocabulary? Can we reclaim the words of the ancient wisdoms? Allow the word ‘god’ to be used as comfortably as the word ‘goddess”?
Words are only words. And taking an experience of the infinite and condensing it down into any word can, at best, be an abbreviation or acronym. How can you crunch the sacred into a tiny set of letters, be they W-O-W (wow!) or G-O-D (God), or anything else?
‘God’ isn’t the only word on our list of seemingly verbal taboos. We have members here, perhaps you are one of them, who fear a modern day / UUCM “off with their heads” response if they use the words ‘prayer’, ‘church’ ‘divinity; ‘holy’, others that I’m sure you could add.
Perhaps its time for me to examine the contents of my own Pandora’s Box. What triggers am I worried about unleashing and how do I use that fear to limit my ability to live from my essence?
Is it my fear of those triggers that gives me a reason to resist any word used to communicate a spiritual understanding? And does that resistance limit my ability to access what the essence of the word represents?
If I had a ribbon hanging from my nametag it would say UU Mystic. What would yours say? Since we, at UUCM are inclusive, and hungry for diversity, just think of the juicy dialogues those ribbons could engender.
So… what’s wrong with God? Is it the word or the concept of something greater than ourselves?
Even atheist Albert Einstein, says “My religion consists of a humble admiration of the illimitable superior spirit who reveals himself in the slight details we are able to perceive with our frail and feeble mind.”
That’s my point. I don’t care what words are used here for that which is beyond the ability of our “frail and feeble minds” to perceive. I am hungry for my experience of community to unapologetically include dialogue into the the sacred – Call it God, or call it the illimitable superior spirit, or call it a touchdown pass in the last 20 seconds, just don’t let what each calls it stop us from exploring the experience with each other.
The next time you hear the word God in this room, I invite you to consider it an acronym for something that is beyond our human capacity to understand, something infinite, universal, and un-nameable.
And when we sing our closing hymn… notice how you feel this time when you sing “sprung in completeness where God’s feet pass.”