A Unitarian Universalist Exploration of the Nature of the Divine

A Sermon by
James Ishmael Ford

27 April 2008
First Unitarian Church of Providence


I was sent forth from the power, and I have come to those who long for me, I am found among those who seek after me. Look upon me, you who long, Listen deeply, hear me. You who are waiting for me, take me to yourselves. And do not banish me from your sight. Do not make your voice hate me, nor your hearing. Do not be ignorant of me anywhere or at any time. Be on your guard! Find me. For I am the first and the last. I am the honored one and the scorned one. I am the whore and the holy one. I am the wife and the virgin. I am the mother and the daughter. I am the parts of my mother. I am the barren one and many are my sons.

Thunder, Perfect Mind

Perhaps you’ve heard the story of the convict on death row. The evening before his execution he was visited by the warden, who asked, “Would you like to meet with a member of the clergy? Whoever you’d like, a priest, imam, minister or rabbi.” The convict hesitated before replying “I was raised a Unitarian Universalist.” The warden thought for a moment and said, “Then perhaps you’d like to speak with a math professor?”

Now trying to explain jokes is a dangerous thing. It’s easy to watch the life squeeze out of something if you grab it too tightly. Still, there are some points here I think important to hold up. First this joke points to our UU romance with rationality, as well as implying the shadow lurking within that romance. And it hints at additional layers of meaning. As near as I can tell of western religions that have claim to being anywhere near the mainstream of our culture only Reconstructionist Judaism and Unitarian Universalism offer no dogmatic view on the nature or even the existence of God. Unitarian Universalism writ large is notoriously ambiguous about many traditional religious perspectives and particularly about the nature of the divine.

I’ll let the Reconstructionists speak for themselves, but today I’d like to explore how we Unitarian Universalists relate to what my former ministerial intern Chris Bell now minister of our congregation in Santa Rosa, California likes to call “that great big thing,” our traditional placeholder of hope and confusion and longing: God.

Here’s a truth about our contemporary liberal faith. We count among us, and treasure people with a deep and personal relationship with a loving God. We also count among us, and treasure people who find any concept of God not merely troublesome, but inevitably harmful. These days the majority of us appear to float in between those polar positions, although it seems to me the trend for the last several decades has been toward ever greater comfort with various ideas of God and away from more agnostic or atheist perspectives that once dominated our congregations.

This morning I want to explore what that might mean for us in this wild and wonderful community of spiritual quest that is our contemporary Unitarian Universalism. I also want to introduce a caution and an invitation. I feel I’m in a particularly good place to address all this. My life has been marked by both these extremes of perspective as well as the slide between them. So I hope you’ll forgive what is ultimately a deeply personal reflection. Although, a hint about that invitation to which I’ll be coming: deeply personal is what it’s about.

Ours was a small and tight knit family that consisted of my parents and brother and our maternal grandparents and my mother’s sister. Like many poorer people we moved a great deal over the years. Sometimes we would be two units, my grandparents and auntie and our own nuclear family, sometimes all seven of us together. The last ragged remains of that core are my auntie and myself who have now been woven into Jan’s much larger extended family. Still, as I was growing up particularly with all the moving we did those six people, my brother, mother, father, auntie, grandfather and grandmother were the center of my life.

In my formative years my grandmother was the spiritual center for the family. Her name was Bolene Bernard. She was a free-will Baptist brought up in Missouri, one of those places that can claim to be the buckle of the Bible belt. I won’t try to unpack what a “free-will Baptist” is here today. What I want to do is describe some of her spiritual life. Bolene was a prayer-warrior. Her days were filled with conversation with God and specifically with long lists of petitionary prayers on behalf of many, many people. Folk in the churches to which she belonged, and therefore to which we belonged, believed her intercessions were particularly powerful and sought her prayers on a continuous basis.

Her life was also filled with spirits, ghosts of the dead, demons and angels. Raised in a small town at the edge of farm country at the beginning of the twentieth century she saw nature as both powerful and dangerous. Her God was a fearsome being, much like nature itself, both a loving father and an occasionally randomly wrathful force. He was an unpredictable being who should not be crossed. I don’t recall asking, but I’m moderately confident her God looked a lot like the divine in Michelangelo’s famous fresco on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, God’s creation of Adam, with that long flowing beard and that outstretched and pointing hand. The pointing finger could create, but it also could destroy. My grandmother’s God was the God of my childhood.

The other center in my childhood was my father. He was orphaned when very young. He was passed around among family members around New Jersey for a couple of years but was eventually abandoned to an orphanage as incorrigible. He ran away and his adolescence at the tail end of the Great Depression was spent hawking newspapers and engaging in petty crime on the streets of New York. He had no formal education but had a knack for math and was a voracious reader, particularly of science fiction. His name was James Ford.

James’ family was Roman Catholic, but somewhere along the line he stumbled upon the writings of Robert Ingersoll, the brilliant nineteenth century Free Thinker. Early on my father decided religion was the concern of women and children. He mocked the Bible as the product of men trying to control people through fear and pie-in-the-sky promises and took great pleasure in mocking the more unlikely images in Scripture such as God walking around in a garden with Adam and Eve, the world being flooded, the world having four corners, a man being swallowed by a fish, not to mention various people rising from the dead. He had seen dead in the Second World War and knew you don’t return.

James thought God was a racket, not just a figment of overwrought imaginations, but a consciously devised invention used to fleece the unsuspecting and gullible. I never asked but I’m moderately confident his image of God was the great Oz. It seemed to me he was only marginally interested in the man behind the curtain, and then only for his skills at the con. My father’s God was the God of my adolescence.

These visions warred in my heart. Toward the end of my adolescence I realized the questions of spirituality were the most pressing things in my life. And so I embarked upon a spiritual quest. I lived my young adulthood in the San Francisco Bay Area of the late Nineteen Sixties and early Seventies. During this time I visited gurus and spiritual teachers of many different stripes. Over the years I gave serious attention to Vedanta, Sufism, Western Gnosticism, and Zen Buddhism. I was a Buddhist monk for several years.

Gradually my spirituality settled and a quarter of a century ago I became a Unitarian Universalist. Within this wonderfully wild bundle of contradictions that is our liberal faith I’ve come to claim what I call a “physiology of faith.” You’ve seen it before, I think. But please indulge my repeating it: I claim a Buddhist brain, a Christian heart and a humanist stomach. That is I am convinced of a basic liberal Buddhist interpretation of the way things are, while my metaphorical references, the actual content of my dreams come from the Bible’s stories I learned at my grandmother’s knee, all of which is washed through a basically rationalist and humanist disposition.

So where is God in this for me? I’m not persuaded by Pascal’s famous wager, which is, considering the consequences it’s better to bet on God and afterlife than no God and no afterlife. I find myself more concerned with the truth than hedging bets. Today many of my friends are persuaded by the famous argument from design probably the most compelling of the traditional arguments for the existence of God. I’m not. I’m just not persuaded that the beauty of the universe argues for a human-like creator. Personally I find it nearly impossible to believe there is a God who is a being separate from the universe in any sense or who is concerned with the affairs of human beings in any way meaningful to human beings.

Those are the negative statements.

Vastly more important to me are the positive ones. What I do find is the whole lovely mess of the universe taken together is astonishing, beautiful, terrifying and deserves designations of awe. I believe in something similar to Spinoza’s God. I have no problem calling the whole of the cosmos taken together God.

I need to emphasize this is not a philosophical assertion. I’m speaking of what my heart experiences. I look around and I see God. I look within my heart and I find God. I believe the whole is sacred, what the Gnostics called Pleroma, the fullness of all that is. I feel this fullness and the name God dances on my tongue like a flame. My experience of this is ecstatic and I hear this experience echoed in many voices from many traditions. I certainly recognize it in much of that ancient Gnostic poem Thunder, Perfect Mind we used for today’s text.

And while not directly on point, but connected and important, I believe in the power of prayer – as attention and aspiration. More directly on point, I believe this God is best known in our attention to each other, to our individual acts of kindness and our work for justice in this world. We are one family and, God knows, we should act like it.

Of course, as I’ve heard, arguing theology or the meaning of spirituality with a Unitarian Universalist is like mud wrestling with a pig. At some point you realize the pig really likes it. Here’s where I’d like to hold up that caution and invitation I mentioned near the beginning. We like to argue. Actually as a group we love to argue. If we aren’t careful argument can be hurtful and destructive. That argument, however, can also be a spiritual practice. If we embrace it, and tame it just a little bit, something wonderful can emerge. It is a way of creative engagement, where if we’re able to be vulnerable and kind at the same time as we say what we feel and think, new vistas can open for us as individuals and within our community.

Our collective need, my own personal need is for people who have a more personalized vision of God, people for whom God is a harmful concept, and all of us in-between, to not despise each other’s vision. Our gathering isn’t a contest about who is more put upon, or even who has the best take on truth. Rather our authentic way is one of engagement, of curiosity and care, of discovering a constantly unfolding, dynamic truth. Our need as a spiritual community is to covenant to be together and to be authentic with each other in kindness and love on our shared quest for meaning and purpose in life.

Our way has no creed, but it is a way of covenant. And I suggest our willingness to be with each other as we are, to be genuinely curious about each other’s views, to challenge with respect reveals much, perhaps even the mind of God. It’s that important, I really believe.


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