God as Prose, God as Poetry: Unitarian Universalism Faces a New Age


“(W)hen I say “God”, it is poetry, not theology. Nothing that any theologian ever wrote about God has helped me much, but everything that poets have written about flowers, and birds, and skies, and seas, and the saviors of the race, and God — whoever that may be — has at one time or another reached my soul. The theologians gather dust upon the shelves of my library, but the poets are stained with my fingers and blotted with my tears”

John Haynes Holmes

Last evening at our Unitarian Universalist General Assembly’s Service of the Living Tradition, our annual worship service where we acknowledge the ministry of our denomination, the preacher was the Reverend Vanessa Southern, minister of the Unitarian Church in Summit, New Jersey.

She spoke of a coming age of spirit. She never quite defined what spirit was, which, in general I approve of. Some things are perceived through a glass darkly, and big things, visions for the way things are, are very much like that. We find the mystery like in the Buddha’s famous story of the elephant, only in part.

It took a while but she eventually came to the heart of her message, what our part of the elephant of spirit might be, holding up love and unity, the dynamic that holds us together (and she didn’t go there, but, also, that tears us apart), and how we are all radically, totally, completely, connected.

A variation on what I think is the saving message of Unitarian Universalism.

Worked for me.

And, I felt myself not fully connecting.

I’m sure there were many reasons. I’m exhausted from fifteen days on the road, this being the second conference back to back for me. Also, I’m a bit grumpy with our denominational leadership right now.

But, also I found myself aware of the great struggle at the liberal edge of religion, or the edges of liberal religion in our times.

Much of it turns on our relationship to God.

Ultimacy is of course the stuff of religion, of spirituality. And when the word God is used for ultimacy, we find ourselves moving very much into the light of a hazy moon.

In the West, the rich polytheisms that seem an initial human impulse to describe our encounters with that ultimacy, coalesced from one of the deities, probably a storm god, to the god of one tribe, to a god of all peoples. Also, somewhere along the line, that deity could be seen as both that big human in the sky, and as something else.

Personally, I find the evolved deity an inadequate expression of ultimacy. It projects human needs on to the universe, making God that big human. And it creates a universe with good and evil, and it makes it hard to see the deity as good. Asking why this particular child is allowed to live to be a hundred and that child to starve to death at six months, opens challenges to a god of love. If that god is supposed to have our human sense of right and wrong.

Now the universe is big. And it is lovely. And it is terrible.

And I have no problem with using the word God in another sense, as it has been from time to time in the West, to describe the fullness of it all. But this god, this god of real ultimacy contains all our human longings, along with everything else.

My concern as I saw it in the worship service last evening, was how it seemed for many among us, we can’t go all the way. Instead the God we want is the god of intervention.

And, I fear, that deity serves no good.

It becomes a path of simply painting our own face on the universe. But the paint wear thin quickly.

And hurt follows the false worship.

A world of hurt.

We stand at an interesting moment in the history of our liberal faith. We took a vacation from using that word god. We appear to be relentlessly going forward to reclaiming the word.

But, are we going to simply return to that god which makes one person happy and curses the other?

Or, are we going to allow the language of the sacred, the language of heart to point us in new directions?

The choice is in front of us. We can embrace a world where the miracle of life in all its joy and horror is in the hands of a terrible deity who reigns in heaven. Or, we can find a God that is the shape of intimacy, found when we do not turn away, when we do not project our hurt and longing, painting a face on the cosmos, but instead, let the cosmos reveal itself to our hearts, transforming us, rending the illusions of separation.

I agree with Vanessa, we are at the dawn of a new age of spirit.

But there are many spirits out there.

I sure hope we pick the right one…

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  • Maureen Killoran

    OMG, James – yes, oh my God — I needed your perspective this morning. I watched the SLT from afar. Vanessa definitely rocks as a preacher, the music took was both excellent and exciting, and, standing beside my kitchen table, I cried as I always do during the naming of those of our colleagues who have died. But somehow, with all this richness, I came away hungry. And I think you have shone a light on this hunger. In reclaiming God/god language, are we turning to what we know, to the God/god that calls us to do what our minds and hearts say is right for the world, rather than challenging us literally to go out of our minds, to go deep into something and some place new. You have put it better than I, but I value this moment of reflection. Thank you.

  • http://www.andrewhidas.com/ Andrew Hidas

    Thoughtful post, James, for which I thank you very much. Only having trouble with that last line—feels a bit too portentous for me. Oh dear, what if I pick the “wrong” one?

  • Ellen Ska

    What’s the difference between the God of fullness-as-it-all-is, a made-up sky God, and “no God at all”? (Occam’s Razor would suggest that “no God” is the simplest explanation.)
    Since we as humans temperamentally and psychologically require a God, does it matter if there’s any objective reality to whatever concept we adopt? (If we’re actually stranded on a desert island after the apocalypse with no chance of rescue, is it better to keep having hope, or to accept harsh reality?)
    If they’re all just useful stories to keep us perpetuating the species, the Flying Spaghetti Monster is just as necessary and real as older Gods, and we can each pretty much pick one at random.

  • Mark_Hoelter

    Thank you, James. Well said. And I like your opening quote from John Haynes Holmes (appropriately attached to William Blake’s famous painting).

    The neo-pragmatist philosopher, Richard Rorty (grandson of Walter Rauschenbusch of “social gospel” fame, graduate student of Charles Hartshorne of “process theology” fame) echoed Holmes when he reflected on Alfred North Whitehead’s and Charles Hartshorne’s “process god,” inspired in part by poet William Wordsworth. He said that for him, Rorty, Wordsworth’s poetic “sense sublime” by the light of the setting sun was complete enough by itself, and did not need the fine speculative philosophical depictions of the god of process theology by Whitehead or Hartshorne. Leave it all at the speculatively vague but poetically refined “sense sublime”.

    These days, for both my theologizing such as it is and my coaching ministry, I am noticing the studies of neuroscientists. Particularly, I am noticing how they are finding we have three brains: head brain, heart brain, gut brain (and that there are as many or more electrically flashing brain synapses enfolding our hearts and our guts as are inside our skulls). The three need each other and need continually to be juggled, not standing upright in a fixed line or a fixed pyramid with the head-brain at the top. They need all three continually to be juggled.

    Within UU we have overdeveloped access to the head brain (technically the neo-cortex), which leads us into speculations and re-speculations, formulations and reformulations of things like God, and god, and G-d … and Spirit and spirit and spirits. Those are fine if we do them somewhat as the Tibetan Buddhist monks construct their colored sand mandalas and then, when finished, scrape off all the sand, destructuring the mandala.

    What we have yet to develop, on a UU-wide scale, is a juggler’s equal access to the wisdom of the heart-brain and the gut-brain. Those must be approached, courted, and married in a different way (and, of course, one of those ways is the way you practice and teach in addition to the head-brain stuff of sermons, dharma talks, and blog posts). There are now people (for example Richard Boyatzis & Daniel Goleman in business and leadership, Daniel J. Siegel and Rick Hanson in therapy and coaching) who also are taking this off the meditation cushion and into the workplace and social action arenas).

    So I too get a little excited, and then a little bit bored, and then a little bit worried when we try too much to reclaim notions – “God” and “Spirit.” It’s more head-brain stuff, and not what we need more of.

    And a practice which I wish UU would become as famous for as Quakers have become famous for consensus process is the practice of interpersonal, interpolitical, and interfaith dialogue. For I-Thou dialogue, beyond just intellectual discussion, requires us to attune ourselves to heart-brain and gut-brain as well as head-brain.

  • Don Erickson

    Thanks, Rev. Ford. I write in the middle of preparing a sermon. It is my first sermon as the settled minister of a federated UUA/UCC church. As someone who has taken a very diverse path to this new “road” (which included a few years of serious study and practice of Buddhism both here and in Korea as well as vows of laity), I perfectly understand the hesitancy toward the traditional meaning behind God which I no longer see as helpful. This is not to say that it can’t be used as an expedient means for another, especially when there is a teacher/mentor pointing to the moon and differentiating it from the finger. I chose to write that first sermon on Genesis and the story of beginnings. An idea that has developed in preparation for that sermon is apropos when considering your blog, I think. A healthier way of looking at God for me is seeing it as another word for Dao. I don’t need to go into discussing what Dao suggests because you “know” more than I. I’ll simply say it is a word that Zen and Confucianism appropriated and so has a history of being appropriated. Appropriating the meaning of Dao but using the word for ultimacy most utilized in the West — God — seems a healthy direction to go for me as I approach writing sermons about God in a UUA/UCC setting. I’m not sure if UU without the UCC would find this useful. But maybe so.

  • rocklandborn

    Oh please, writings such as this and and similar sermons has driven me, and a great many others, from the Unitarian Universalist Church and I doubt that anything will bring me (we) back. My ancestors, one being a founder of Universalism, would roll over in their graves if they heard this “make me feel good” dribble preaching. There are certainly better ways to make His word more relevant without turning your back on the scriptures.


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