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My Universalist Specifics – 3/18/2012

Last Sunday, our Director of Religious Education, Deb Sweet, spoke from this pulpit about her understanding of God, and how she arrived at it. Today it is my turn to do the same. Now I will be surprised if you all agree with everything I am about to say to you. In fact, if you find nothing to disagree with, I will be disappointed. There are places where the people in the pews are expected to hold the same theology as the person in the pulpit. This is not one of those places. Even if we do not agree in our beliefs, I am very glad to be in this congregation with you, united by its larger agreement of service and love. So now, having said all that, let us begin:

The sage told his student: “Everything is God. This is the end of all wisdom.” The student heard this, and in an instant he understood: the Divine was all around him and in him, flowing through everything, universal, inescapable, all-embracing. He felt a wellspring of tranquility rise up within him. His soul seemed to expand to fill the earth and sky and reach even beyond the edges of the universe. In a daze of wonder and self-absorption, he wandered out into the road, stumbling in awe. Coming from the opposite direction, there was an elephant, and the driver who sat on the animal’s neck shouted at the student, “Make way! Make way!”

The student could see and hear all of this very clearly, but lost in his ecstasy, he refused to move. ‘Why should I stand aside?’ he asked himself. ‘I am God, and the elephant is God. Is God to live in fear of himself?’ Unafraid, the student walked forward, and at the last possible moment before the collision, the elephant reached out with its trunk and swept the mystic aside. He was knocked out of the road entirely, where he fell into the dust.

In confusion and dismay and covered in dirt, the student returned to the sage. He explained what had happened to him and asked, “Guru, you taught me that everything is God. Including me, including that elephant. If this is true, how could God inflict such indignity on himself?”

The teacher replied, “What I told you is true: everything is God, including you and the elephant. But tell me – why did you not listen to the voice of God, which was yelling from atop the elephant, ‘Make way! Make way!’?”[i]

If our service were only three minutes long this morning, I would simply tell you this story and sit down. But because we have the benefit of a little more time, I will elaborate. I am a Unitarian Universalist – I have been my whole life. Unitarian Universalism has always shaped my theology: my sense of the purpose of my life and all lives, and of what ultimately matters. But that theology has also changed over time – it has evolved in response to my own particular circumstances and experiences. As I have grown as a person, my beliefs have grown along with me, and that hasn’t just been made possible because of my faith – it is actually something that is required of me by my identity as a Unitarian Universalist.

I inherited from my father a love of the funny pages, of newspaper comic strips. It was something he gave to me from a young age. One of the strips we both enjoyed when I was growing up was Gary Larson’s The Far Side. I remember one of his panels with the caption, God at His Computer. It pictured God pictured God as an old white man with long white hair and a long white beard in a long white robe. God was sitting in front of a computer screen that showed some poor young man walking down the street, apparently unaware that over his head a piano hung precariously by a cord. And you can see God’s hand hovering over the keyboard, poised just above a key labeled, ‘SMITE’.

From the earliest days that I can remember, I understood that there was an idea a little bit like this image, out there in the world. The idea is that God is the name for a being of infinite power who knows everything and controls everything and chooses, consciously chooses, who will suffer and who will be rewarded, who will live and who will die. So when something good or bad happens to a person, you can know that it was God’s will that that happen, and that it must have happened because of something good or bad that they did. I understood that this was a very popular idea, that a lot of people held it, and I also believed very deeply this idea was wrong.

The empirical evidence that this understanding of God cannot be true is all around us. It is possible to do terrible things, and still live an apparently comfortable life. Bashar al-Assad, the dictator of Syria, heads a police state and has presided for the past year over a murderous campaign against his own people. And just this past week it came to light in the press that he spends his leisure time downloading music from iTunes and finding ways to get around the sanctions against his country so that he can smuggle in western entertainments and luxury items. And far more important than the fact that bad fates do not always befall people who do bad things, are the terrible fates that no loving heart could wish on any other person.

My own first evidence for this came within my own family. I have a sister I have never met. She died as she was being born, a year or so before my parents had me. My mother and father have always been very honest with me about the pain of that loss, and about the joy that they felt when I, and later my brothers arrived. I happen to think that they are very good people, but even if they were the worst of the worst, there is no crime on this earth for which the death of a child is a fitting punishment.

So when I first established my understanding of what God was not, it was on the basis of observation: it was not true because I could see that it was not true. But as I grew in my faith and identity as a Unitarian Universalist, I came to appreciate that in matters of faith – something quite different from matters of scientific fact – there is something more important than whether an idea is observably true or false. What is more important is what sort of life, and what sort of world, holding that idea leads to. Like some Unitarian Universalists, I call myself a Humanist, and what I mean when I use that name is that human beings matter. So in the decisions I make and the ideals I devote myself to, I must not discard, disparage or destroy human life in pursuit of anything else. Some religious and spiritual ideas are destructive to life. They teach people to hate themselves or others, to hurt themselves, or others, and they make the world a harder and more painful place to live. The goodness of our beliefs is to be determined by their consequences for our lives and the lives of those around us, here on earth.

I absorbed that principle from my religious upbringing, but it wasn’t until after reaching adulthood, when I began to explore our tradition in a deeper way, that I began to appreciate where it had come from. Our ancestors, particularly on the Universalist side, struggled with a popular theology of their day that made God a tyrant. And they answered this with a God who was all about love, for everyone, unconditionally. They discarded the idea of a supreme being obsessed with handing out one-way tickets to an afterlife of eternal torture. They also did away, many of them, with the idea that determine whom God favored from the luck that befell them. So the focus moved to this life, this world, and all the people living in it. The purpose of religion came to be about making the world a better, more just and more humane place, and reminding everyone that no matter what, they were loved by a universal and unselfish love.

When I first began to really learn about this major strand of our tradition, my soul rang like a bell. I resonated with the grounding in radical love, the passion for a just society, the sense of a mission to serve all people. In Universalism I came to understand where much of the faith that I had taken in organically from Sunday School classes and half-remembered worship services growing up had come from. Digging down into those roots challenged me to dream bigger about the imperatives of my beliefs, to live more boldly in the practice of my religion. It demanded that I hone my understanding not just of what God was not, but of what positive truth I held in place of the one discarded. This is how I would explain that now:

At the center of my theology is a reverence for existence. The universe is a wondrous place: billions-upon-billions of cosmic furnaces, suspended in a sea of darkness, some of them with rocks spinning around them, some few of those rocks with liquid water and an atmosphere. And fantastically, miraculously, somehow or other the conditions on at least one of those airy, watery rocks proved just right for the formation of life. And the universe grew eyes to see itself, and ears to hear. The world is not perfect; to imagine a better one, you need only subtract one flood, one murder, or one heartbreak. But it is good enough to allow us to exist in it. It is good enough for me to love, and to feel some mystical sense of loving from it as well.

It’s a little bit like a fisherman who lives beside the sea. He depends upon the water for his livelihood. It is often not easy to live near the ocean, or to spend long hours on its waves. There is danger in it, and sometimes terrible loss. But because he could not live in the first place without it, the fisherman has reason to be grateful to the ocean, and by simply being, without choosing, or acting, the water shows kindness and mercy to all the people who depend upon it.

In the year that I spent working as a hospital chaplain, my faith and theology were tested daily by the work of companioning people who were often in the midst of great suffering. It made me far more humble in my attitude towards others, and their beliefs. One afternoon, on a day off between Christmas and New Years, I got a call from the on-call chaplain. Someone else couldn’t make it in to relieve her, and after 16 hours she needed to be relieved. Since I seemed to be the only person foolish enough to answer their phone, I went in. That night, after midnight, the beeper I carried woke me up – there was an ambulance coming in. One person, badly injured in a car accident.

In the Trauma Bay I played my part as I usually did: a mostly silent witness, praying for a good outcome, watching for opportunities to offer comfort to the patient and to staff. It is not my theology that prayer can change the outcome of events, except in two ways: praying always changes me; it helps me to focus, reminds me of what’s important, and forces me to slow down. And sometimes, prayer also changes the people who know that I am praying for them: it adds a little more courage, a little more comfort, a little more strength. So I was praying for this man, who had hit a telephone pole. He was just a little younger than me, and behind the respirator mask I couldn’t really see his face. He had stabilized and I was waiting for his family to arrive.

When the doors opened and I looked up and saw his mother and father, I realized that I knew them. They were old family friends. Which meant that I knew the man lying on the table as well; we had played together as children, though we hadn’t seen each other in more than a decade. The fact that I happened to be there that night changed nothing, and it changed everything. The young man and his family were cared for by someone they knew – there was one familiar face in a sea of chaos and struggle. Against long odds, and my own preferences for how I would have chosen, at the start of it, to spend my Sunday night, I happened to be exactly where I needed to be. I do not believe in a master plan for the universe, that everything is unfolding according to some intelligent design. But I am filled with wonder and gratitude to live in a world where it is sometimes possible to find ourselves in exactly the right place, at exactly the right time.

In my own theology, I do not focus on the word, ‘God’. I had, at one time, a mild allergy to it, but I have come to understand its utility and beauty, from the great wealth of art and wisdom that employs the word, and from the many people I know and love who treasure it dearly. It’s a little like French – French is not my native language, but I can still appreciate its beauty and its power, and there are many people in the world for whom French is their mother tongue. And that’s great. But I don’t understand French at the level where I can hear it and recieve the meaning directly. Some translation is required. So when I say ‘God’ or others say it for me, I sometimes think along lines similar to the famous Agnostic Robert Ingersoll, that “The universe is all the God there is.”[ii] Everything is God, as the guru taught. But there are certain elements or qualities of that everything that I draw particular strength and meaning from.

The cosmos is a witness. Anything that is is a part of everything that is. It matters what you and I and all of us do, and what happens to us. Even when the sun goes out, it will still have happened.

The world is also a companion. The edge of where everything else stops and I begin is fuzzy – we are all constantly taking in new atoms and shedding old ones. At any given moment we might appear to be alone, but the people who love us and were with us hours or days or years before are still there, and so still here in us. And no matter what we are going through, there have been so many people on earth before us that we can be sure that somewhere in the vastness of time, one of our fellow humans can relate to what we’re going through.

And the holiest thing about everything that exists is our own response to it.  If we believe that the world should be a just place, defined by compassion and shaped by love, then it falls to us to accomplish those things. When I marvel at the greatness and complexity of what is: a storm over the sea, the love I feel for my daughter, the power of people, working together, to accomplish what they could not apart. Wondering at these things creates a pull in me, something like the way I imagine the still small voice that the prophet Elijah heard in the Hebrew Bible. It is the pull to renew myself, and the world; the call to heal and to liberate, and to make the whole more beautiful for my having been a part of it. Whenever I worship or pray or bring a careful intention to my living, it is in an effort to listen for that all important voice, even if all it is shouting is, “Make way! Make way!”


[i] Based on a story collected in Heinrich Zimmer’s Wisdom of India.

[ii] From The Best of Robert Ingersoll, Roger E. Greeley, ed., Prometheus Books

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